A Washington, D.C. watchdog group is requesting the Internal Revenue Service investigate whether a local nonprofit organization violated its tax-exempt status by engaging in substantial, unreported lobbying.

The Campaign for Accountability accused Citizens for Balanced Use of doing more lobbying than federal law permits of tax-exempt nonprofits and of inaccurately completing annual tax return forms for 2015, 2016 and 2017, according to a letter that executive director Daniel Stevens sent to the IRS on Friday.

Kerry White, executive director of Citizens for Balanced Use, said the group, which promotes motorized recreation, active forest management and some natural resource development, hasn’t engaged in unlawful lobbying or committed violations on its tax forms.

White, a Republican state representative for Bozeman, said volunteers do the majority of Citizens for Balanced Use’s lobbying, which means lobbying activities aren’t a substantial portion of its budget and that the group doesn’t have lobbying expenses to report to the IRS. He also said Citizens for Balanced Use has filed the required lobbying forms at the state-level to the Commissioner of Political Practices.

Records from the Commissioner of Political Practices show Citizens for Balanced Use hired a lobbyist for the 2015 and 2017 legislative sessions.

“When I looked (Campaign for Accountability) up, it is listed as a left-wing organization,” White said. “They’re just coming after us.”

In the letter to the IRS, the Campaign for Accountability lists numerous efforts that it said Citizens for Balanced Use neglected to report on its tax return forms.

During the 2015 and 2017 legislative sessions, members of Citizens for Balanced Use, which is based in Gallatin Gateway, traveled to Helena to testify before lawmakers on topics that included recreation and private property rights, according to the letter. Members also met with officials from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to express their views on issues like access to state lands.

In 2017, Citizens for Balanced Use requested Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines introduce legislation to end the Wilderness Study Area designation for some public lands in Montana. Later that year, Daines introduced a bill to remove the requested locations from the list of Wilderness Study Areas and cited Citizens for Balanced Use’s support of the bill in his press materials, according to the letter.

The Campaign for Accountability hopes the IRS completes a robust investigation into Citizens for Balanced Use’s lobbying efforts and tax reporting. Depending on the extent of the group’s violations, Stevens said Citizens for Balanced Use might need to be charged criminally for submitting fraudulent tax returns, fined for violating federal law or prevented from registering as a tax-exempt nonprofit.

“There should be a level playing field for nonprofits,” Stevens said.

Tax reports have not yet been released for 2018 or 2019, so the letter to the IRS focuses on 2015, 2016 and 2017, Stevens said. However, the Campaign for Accountability found Citizens for Balanced Use has continued lobbying during the last two years. The group’s efforts included hosting a lunch for state lawmakers in Helena and urging its members to speak to local, state and federal officials about land-use issues.

The Campaign for Accountability received information about Citizens for Balanced Use from the Western Values Project, a Montana-based conservation organization.

Jayson O’Neill, deputy director for the Western Values Project, said the group tracks public lands organizations as part of its work to defend public lands. As Western Values Project looked at Citizens for Balanced Use, it found discrepancies between its lobbying work and its reports to the IRS. Western Values Project then decided to send its findings to the Campaign for Accountability, where tax lawyers could review them.

“We’re encouraged that this has been filed with the IRS and hope they take a serious look at Citizens for Balanced Use,” O’Neill said.

Perrin Stein can be reached at 406-582-2648 or at pstein@dailychronicle.com. Follow her on Twitter @PerrinStein.

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