In what appears to be a political decision by conservatives in state government, for the first time in more than 30 years, Arizona state employees no longer can make make donations from their paychecks to Planned Parenthood Arizona through the State Employee Charitable Campaign.
Yet the Arizona SECC continues to list the religious-based Alliance Defending Freedom as an eligible organization for worker donations.
The SECC is the government entity that helps state employees contribute to local non-profits through payroll deductions or one-time donations, and according to its own website, raises hundreds of thousands of dollars annually — more than $580,000 was donated through the SECC in 2014.
Hundreds of nonprofits submit applications and are approved every year, but for reasons that continue to confound the leaders of Planned Parenthood Arizona, the group’s application was denied this year.
“We only found out [we’d been denied] because state employees started calling us and saying that they want to donate to Planned Parenthood but couldn’t find it on the [SECC] list,” says Annet Ruiter, Planned Parenthood Arizona's external affairs vice president.
Having never received notification saying their latest application was denied, the organization’s leadership was confused by these calls, and according to e-mails obtained by New Times, reached out to SECC Executive Director Linda Stiles in late October to inquire about it.
On October 22, John McDonald-O’Lear, development director for Planned Parenthood Arizona, was forwarded an e-mail Stiles allegedly sent on September 4:
“I regret to inform you that our Executive Policy Committee has not accepted your application for inclusion into the 2015 State Employees Charitable Campaign. While many worthy organizations have applied to the program, not all are the best fit with the mission or standards of the campaign,” she wrote.
Stiles did not return multiple requests for comment.
At the bottom of the e-mail was a note saying the group could appeal the decision within 10 days, meaning Planned Parenthood Arizona had missed the window of opportunity.
That same day, McDonald-O’Lear responded with this message:
“Thanks for forwarding the email below. I hope you’ll now understand my confusion regarding the calls from State Employees trying to donate to us when I didn’t receive this message.
“We have reviewed the Campaign policy that is linked in the response and are still not understanding how we did not fit with the mission or standards of the campaign. We carefully reviewed the requirements and standards and don’t see any that we don’t meet. We would most appreciate if you can enlighten us as to the mission of the campaign (which wasn’t included in the Campaign Policy document) or which specific standard(s) that Planned Parenthood did not meet.
“While I understand that you are already in the pledge phase we would appreciate the additional information requested above so we can determine if there is further action that we should take at this time, particularly since we don’t have record of receiving the forwarded notice. We’d like to formally appeal the SECC Executive Policy Committee’s decision.”
Eight days later, on Friday October 30, Stiles wrote back:
“The SECC Executive Policy Committee (EPC) determined Planned Parenthood of Arizona is not the best fit with the mission or standards of the campaign. Therefore, the EPC exercised its discretion to exclude the charitable organization to maintain the SECC core mission of supporting state employees' charitable giving while minimizing workplace interruptions.
“In regards to your request for an appeal, the letter of denial was emailed on September 4, 2015 to the contact email address provided in your application. Unfortunately, per our SECC policy, you did not submit your request for appeal within the time provided, therefore, your appeal will not be considered.”
“We’ve participated for 30 years, and now all of a sudden we no longer fit the mission?” Ruiter says. “They're just whittling away at donors’ choices for where they want to put their charity . . . It’s not right.”
According to the SECC’s own rules, a group is eligible for inclusion in the list if it is “a nonprofit, tax exempt, charitable organization being supported through voluntary contributions from the general public and providing direct and primary health and human services or those actively engaged in environmental or historical protection, enhancement, restoration, preservation or conservation.” (Emphasis by SECC.)
As far as Ruiter is concerned, “The SECC’s explanation [for rejecting us] isn’t clear . . . It seems [they did so] for no other reason than that they don’t like us. [And now] we have no legal recourse.”
She adds that Stiles’ e-mail “just said that we're not the best fit with the mission or standards of the campaign, but the Alliance Defending Freedom is in it? To be eligible [for inclusion in the SECC list] you have to be a health and human service — tell me how the Alliance Defending Freedom is either of those?”
Alliance Defending Freedom’s mission is “to preserve and defend our most cherished birthright – religious freedom,” according to its website.
So was the decision to exclude Planned Parenthood Arizona politically motivated?
Ruiter and others in the organization certainly think so.
Governor Doug Ducey — a vocal critic of Planned Parenthood — chairs the SECC and appoints its top leaders, Ruiter points out, and the application decisions were made at the same time discredited undercover videos purportedly showing Planned Parenthood officials selling fetal tissue for profit were circulating widely on the Internet and making daily headlines.
“The money is not what it’s really about,” Ruiter says, adding that Planned Parenthood Arizona typically receives between $7,000 and $8,000 annually from SECC-facilitated donations.
“It’s about taking state employees’ rights away by saying what they can and can’t donate [their own] salary to.”