Soros group accused Sipo of mischaracterising Amnesty grant
Watchdog criticised over ‘incorrect’ statement on controversial €137,000 donation
Amnesty International Ireland - headed by executive director Colm O’Gorman - is refusing to return the money and has described Sipo’s demand as ‘unreasonable and unjust’. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times
The George Soros-funded organisation behind a controversial €137,000 donation to Amnesty International Ireland has accused the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) of mischaracterising its communications over the grant.
The donation from the Open Society Foundations, the human rights campaigning group funded by the Hungarian-American billionaire, is at the centre of a standoff between Amnesty and the Government’s ethics watchdog.
Sipo has told Amnesty to return the money to OSF arguing it has contravened the 1997 Electoral Act.
The legislation prohibits foreign donations from third-party organisations for “political purposes.”
Amnesty maintains that the grant, which Sipo had no issue with in 2016, was not for “political purposes” but for “a human rights purpose” saying that it was used to fund its “My Body My Rights” campaign for women’s rights and seeking support to repeal the Eighth Amendment that bans abortion in Ireland.
The group is refusing to return the money and has described Sipo’s demand as “unreasonable and unjust.” It is seeking legal advice and has said that it intends to challenge the instruction “by all appropriate means.”
In a previously unpublished letter sent last month, OSF disputed the Sipo assertion in a December 13th, 2017 press release that it had provided written confirmation that the grant was “for explicitly political purposes.”
“We want to be very clear that OSF has not confirmed to you that either of the foregoing grants was for political purposes, and any assertion that we have done so is a mischaracterisation of our communications with you,” Patrick Gaspard, acting president of the group, told Sipo’s head of ethics and lobbying regulation Sherry Perreault.
He said Sipo’s assertion may be based on an “incorrect assumption” about the nature and purpose of a document stolen by hackers that drew a public spotlight to the donation.
“We ask you kindly [to] rectify actions or public statements you may have made on the basis of such a mischaracterisation and/or incorrect assumption,” wrote Mr Gaspard in his letter, sent to Sipo two days after issuing the press release.
A spokeswoman for Sipo had no comment on OSF’s request, saying that it did not discuss “individual compliance matters or correspondence.”
Ms Perreault has previously said OSF had engaged in a “bit of wordsmithing” and the group had verified documentary evidence received by Sipo that “essentially clarified the intent” behind the donation to Amnesty.
Amnesty has argued it fully disclosed in September 2016 that the OSF funding was used in the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment when Sipo raised queries about the nature of the funding.
In October 2016 Sipo told Amnesty it accepted its position that it was not currently required to register with the commission as a third party to accept a donation for political purposes.
Sipo’s November 2017 finding that the donation was, in fact, made for political purposes has opened Amnesty up to a potential criminal complaint if it chooses not to return the donation as ordered.
Amnesty has argued more generally that the Electoral Act is “deeply flawed” and has been too broadly drawn as it could prevent civic or local community groups from seeking to influence government or legislative decision-making.
“We would take it that the political purposes that the act is meant to capture is engagement in election or referendum campaigns, not in general advocacy or engagement with Government,” said Amnesty International Ireland’s executive director Colm O’Gorman.
He said should Sipo continue to interpret and apply the act in this way continue, it would “wipe out civil society engagement in Ireland.”
Anti-abortion group Irish Pro-Life Campaign has accused Amnesty of acting above the law and described the OSF funding as “a gross interference in our democracy and in safeguarding the right to life.”
Mr O’Gorman said: “We don’t for a moment believe that we are above the law, rather the application of the law in this way and the law itself is deeply flawed and needs to be challenged.”