Daytona Beach, Florida -- Governor Mitt Romney vigorously defended a plan yesterday by his political advisers to develop a network of Mormon supporters for his potential presidential bid, while a former Internal Revenue Service commissioner said discussions among Romney operatives and Mormon Church leaders about the initiative could violate the church's tax-exempt status.
Asked about yesterday's Globe report that Romney's team had quietly consulted with officials from the church and church-run Brigham Young University on building a list of Mormon backers nationwide, the governor said it was only natural that he would reach out to as many donors as possible as he eyes a run at the presidency in 2008.
"Clearly, I'm going to raise money from people I know, and that includes BYU alums, people of my church, people of other churches, Harvard Business School graduates," Romney said in an interview, as he and Governor Jeb Bush of Florida campaigned for a Republican candidate for Florida's chief financial officer.
Romney's comments suggest that the fund-raising initiative, which his political advisers dubbed Mutual Values and Priorities, or MVP, remained an active effort. On Tuesday, one of Romney's top aides, Spencer Zwick, said the MVP program had been abandoned.
The Globe story described discussions that have taken place during the last two months among Romney's political operatives and church leaders about building a grass-roots political organization through the roughly 40 US alumni chapters of BYU's business school, the Marriott School of Management. Representatives of BYU and Romney's political action committee, the Commonwealth PAC, have also been soliciting help from other prominent Mormons to build the program.
The president and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Gordon B. Hinckley, has been informed of the effort and expressed no opposition, the Globe reported. Jeffrey R. Holland, one of 12 apostles who help lead the church worldwide, has handled the initiative for the church and hosted a Sept. 19 meeting in his office in church headquarters with one of Romney's sons, a paid political consultant for the PAC, and one of the governor's major donors. On Oct. 9, two deans of the Marriott School sent an e-mail from a BYU e-mail address asking 150 people to join them in supporting Romney's potential candidacy.
Asked if he thought the use of church and university resources for political purposes posed a potential conflict with federal law on tax-exempt institutions, Romney said: "That's for them to describe. I don't have anything to add from what they have already said on that."
Romney also downplayed the significance of the meeting in Holland's office, which, according to documents reviewed by the Globe, was at least the second meeting between Holland and the Romney camp at which the initiative was discussed.
"We have meetings in church buildings of all faiths all the time," he said. "Schools, churches, that's part of the political process."
A candidate for office, under federal law, can hold meetings in religious facilities as long as the facilities extend the same opportunity to other candidates.
However, for tax-exempt nonprofit organizations like the Mormon Church and BYU, federal law prohibits any advocacy on behalf of a particular candidate or party. IRS spokeswoman Peggy Riley declined comment yesterday.
The church told the Globe earlier this week that it has a position of strict neutrality on political matters and is not supporting the governor. BYU's general counsel instructed the BYU deans last week to halt their effort to boost Romney's potential candidacy. The church released a statement on its website yesterday reiterating its position.
"In light of articles appearing in the media, we reaffirm the position of neutrality taken by the church, and affirm the long-standing policy that no member occupying an official position in any organization of the church is authorized to speak in behalf of the church concerning the church's stand on political issues," the statement reads. Michael R. Otterson, a church spokesman, declined to elaborate.
Donald C. Alexander, who headed the IRS from 1973 to 1977, said yesterday that the collaboration among Romney's political team and leaders of the church and school could run afoul of federal law.
"The massive effort described in your article is, if not over the line, I think much too close to the line," he said. "I think individual Mormons can and probably will support the governor, but they should support the governor as individuals, not in their capacities as having responsibilities for a church or for a university."
Alexander, a tax lawyer in private practice, said that if such an effort continues, "This could create a real problem for some fine institutions.
"Those that are so eager to see Mr. Romney elevated to the presidency should go through the front door and do the right thing rather than get the institutions into possibly deep trouble," he said. ". . . I think their enthusiasm has outrun their judgment."
Thomas A. Troyer, a tax lawyer in Washington, D.C., and a longtime specialist on tax-exempt organizations, said the discussions among Romney operatives and leaders of the church and BYU warrant a deeper look.
"There's certainly some smoke there, more than smoke, and it deserves further scrutiny, further investigation," said Troyer, a former member of the IRS commissioner's Advisory Group on Exempt Organizations.
But, Troyer added, "You'd need more specific, factual information about possible violations to get the IRS involved."
Milton Cerny, a retired lawyer who formerly oversaw tax-exempt groups for the IRS, had a different take, saying the actions of the church and BYU did not appear to violate federal law, because Romney is not officially running for president.
"You don't have an announced candidate," said Cerny, who lives in Virginia. "These are committees being formed to see whether the individual could be a viable candidate or not."
In Daytona Beach yesterday, Romney, speaking to about 50 Republicans outside a GOP campaign office, cracked a joke about the Massachusetts media.
"There are two factions of reporters where I come from in Massachusetts," he said. "We have the Hillary-loving, Ted Kennedy apologists -- and we have the liberals."
The audience erupted in laughter and applause. Romney also heaped praise on Jeb Bush, calling him the best governor in America. "There's no question about that," he said.
Later in the day, when Romney appeared with Bush at an event for congressional candidate Vern Buchanan, at an airplane hangar in Venice, Fla., he received a standing ovation from about 200 Republicans.
Romney mingled, signed autographs, posed for photographs, and sang an impromptu Irish blessing with a barbershop quartet before refusing to answer any more questions from the Massachusetts reporter.
"Hi, on our way," he said as he brushed past to a waiting van.