Mitt Romney defends plan to form network of Mormon supporters

BOSTON –Political operatives for Gov. Mitt Romney have consulted with leaders of the Mormon church about building a nationwide network of supporters, should the Massachusetts Republican move ahead with plans to run for president in 2008.

Among the ideas under consideration was tapping alumni chapters across the country from Brigham Young University’s business school, The Boston Globe reported. The drive has been dubbed “MVP,” for “Mutual Values and Priorities,” since Romney himself is a Mormon.

On Tuesday, one of Romney’s top aides, Spencer Zwick, told the Globe that the national network program had been abandoned.

Romney on Thursday defended the efforts, telling The Boston Globe that it’s only natural that he would reach out to as many donors as possible as he eyes a run for president.

“Clearly, I’m going to raise money from people I know, and that includes (Mormon-run Brigham Young University) alums, people of my church, people of other churches, Harvard Business School graduates,” Romney said during a visit to Daytona Beach, Fla., where Romney and Gov. Jeb Bush campaigned for a Republican candidate for Florida’s chief financial officer.

Asked if he thought the use of church and university resources for political purposes raised a possible 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.”

Donald C. Alexander a tax attorney who headed the Internal Revenue Service from 1973 to 1977, told the Globe that the collaboration among Romney’s political team and leaders of the church and school could run afoul of the law.

But Milton Cerny, a retired lawyer who formerly oversaw tax-exempt groups for the IRS, said the actions of BYU and the church did not appear to violate federal law, because Romney is not officially running for president.

Peggy Riley, a spokeswoman for the Internal Revenue Service in Boston, said she could not comment.

The president and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Gordon B. Hinckley, was informed of Romney’s effort, and expressed no opposition, the Globe reported.

Thursday, the Mormon Church released a statement on its Web site that read, “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.”

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