Political activity may endanger library’s nonprofit standing

Staff Writer,Daily Local News, 1/25/08, p.A3

TREDYFFRIN — The library board met Tuesday night to discuss potentially illegal political activity which several people, in their capacity as volunteers for the Tredyffrin Library, engaged in just before the November 2007 election.

Such political activity, several board members said, could endanger the library’s status as a nonprofit.

The Tredyffrin Library has obtained tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) status from the IRS, and according to the IRS Web site, members of nonprofits with 501(c)(3) status are, when acting in their capacity as members, prohibited from engaging in activities “for or against political candidates.”

The incident that led to the library board discussion is this: the Tredyffrin Library is currently running a capital campaign that seeks to get private donors to give money toward renovations of its Strafford branch.

Two of the co-chairs of this capital campaign, Rod Ross and Anne McCollum, sent a politically charged letter to local papers a few weeks before the election. The third co-chair of the capital campaign, a Republican named Paul Olson, was then running for office.

McCollum and Ross’ letter begins: “As two of the co-chairs of the Tredyffrin Public Library Capital Campaign, we greatly value the efforts put forth by the Tredyffrin Township supervisors who supported the building project personally and professionally.”

The letter goes on to list all five Republicans who then sat on Tredyffrin’s Board of Supervisors.

Ross and McCollum’s letter continued: “Regrettably, neither Supervisor Mark DiFeliciantonio nor Supervisor Paul Drucker chose to join the more than 1,200 individuals and families who made a contribution.”

DiFeliciantonio and Drucker are Democrats, and Drucker was at the time up for re-election.

Ross and McCollum then wrote that Drucker and DiFeliciantonio’s decision not to donate was, “At a minimum … a serious lapse of judgment … at a maximum an ethical breach with our community.”

This same letter appeared as a paid advertisement in a local newspaper on Nov. 1. The bottom of the advertisement reads, “Vote Kampf, Lamina and Olson on November 6. Paid for by friends of Paul W. Olson.”

Kampf and Lamina are also Republicans and were at the time running for re-election to the township’s Board of Supervisors.

The library board, at Tuesday’s meeting, asked Ross, who was present, whether he meant to have written the letter as a private individual or as a member of the library board.

Ross said, “Of course I was writing as an unaffiliated person.”

But several library board members did not agree. They pointed out that Ross and McCollum began their letter, “As two of the co-chairs of the Tredyffrin Public Library Capital Campaign …”

In the letter and the advertisement, Ross and McCollum never state that they are speaking as unaffiliated individuals.

Some library board members felt that, by writing a political letter as library affiliates, Ross and McCollum could have endangered the library’s nonprofit standing.

Others did not.

By a 5-4 vote, the board passed a motion but forth by board member Mike Broadhurst which stated that, as its only response to this incident, the board would form a committee to write regulations setting forth what political actions people acting in their capacity as Tredyffrin Library officials can and cannot take.

The board stopped short of censuring Ross, McCollum and Olson for writing the letter.

After passing this motion, the board allowed the public to comment, and library board Chairwoman Yolanda Van de Krol encouraged members of the public to keep their comments apolitical and to focus them “on the merits of the letter.”

Although the board had already voted to take no further action in response to Ross and McCollum’s letter, the public had plenty of commentary, and much of it was political.

This was, perhaps, inevitable. Of the 18 members of the public at the meeting, most were politicians or members of Tredyffrin’s Republican or Democratic committees.

Whether or not the IRS investigates this situation is, in part, up to the public, a lawyer with the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association said in an interview Wednesday.

“A citizen would have to file a complaint with the IRS, and the IRS could then choose to investigate and to revoke or not revoke” the library’s nonprofit status, said Melissa Melewski, the lawyer.

She added that a reason many organizations lose their 501(c)(3) status is because they engaged in forbidden political activity.

Staff writer Dan Kristie can be reached by e-mail at dkristie@dailylocal.com.

1 Comment

Filed under IRS & Non-profits, Local govt & politics

One response to “Political activity may endanger library’s nonprofit standing

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