Two vans for a community-based prisoner re-entry group in southwest Philadelphia display an interesting message these days — “Scott Wagner for Governor” signs.
The doors of the vans have the logo of the group, Gateway to Re-entry. On the sides and back are ads for state Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York, a conservative, self-made businessman running for the GOP nomination for governor.
Wagner said in an interview that he got to the know the group’s director, Tracey L. Fisher, and was impressed with Gateway to Re-entry’s work.
Wagner personally bought and donated the two vans to the group. The campaign ads, he said, are a separate and completely legal undertaking.
“I have an agreement with Gateway to Re-entry, and I pay so much a month to have advertising on the vans,” Wagner said. That agreement is with his campaign committee, not himself personally, he said.
Social service organizations are usually tax-exempt nonprofits that stay out of politics, but Wagner said his campaign lawyers found nonprofits can accept political advertising under certain conditions.
“Any nonprofit, as per the IRS, can rent space on a van for advertising as long as they charge a fair market rate,” Wagner said.
I spoke with Chris Ashby, the Washington, D.C.-based attorney who advises the Wagner campaign on issues of campaign law and regulation.
He directed me to IRS revenue ruling 2007-41, which offers guidance to nonprofits on how to comply with restrictions on political activity.
It says whether a nonprofit can legally accept paid political advertising depends on a number of factors, including whether it’s available to all candidates “in the same election on an equal basis.”
The Wagner campaign declined to provide details of the advertising agreement, but said its payments would be disclosed in campaign finance reports due in January.
Is it kosher?
The staff at Gateway to Re-entry wasn’t interested in talking to me about the group’s relationship with Wagner or how the ads came to be on the vans.
Fisher hung up on me soon after I asked about the ads.
Dr. Carol Simmons, identified on the group’s website as its administrative director, said she wanted to talk about the group’s work in the community.
“We gave out a hundred turkeys last week,” she said. “We have a family dinner every Thanksgiving. Every family got bags of produce to take home.”
Much of the group’s work is centered around the Myers Recreation Center in Southwest Philadelphia. Simmons said the group has been serving meals to senior citizens for five years and conducting workshops every Saturday for returning citizens and others.
As for the ads, Simmons would only say that the organization is careful to follow the law, and that “all the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed.”
She mentioned an affiliated organization, called Gateway Coverage, which is not a non-profit corporation.
State records show there is a limited-liability corporation by that name registered last year. It’s unclear whether the advertising agreement is with Gateway Coverage or another entity.
In any case, the campaign signs are on the vans that bear the logo of Gateway to Re-entry, whose website says “we are a non-profit 501 (c ) (3) organization.”
Two experts on nonprofits I spoke with said charitable organizations should be careful to avoid the kind of public association with political campaigns that candidate advertising brings.
“Any nonprofit that engages in this behavior is being really foolish,” said Laura Otten, executive director of the Nonprofit Center at La Salle University. “We are dependent upon others for our income. If we appear to support one candidate over another, we run the risk of offending people who like our mission, but don’t like our politics.”
Anne Gingerich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Organizations, agreed.
“We believe in nonpartisanship and neutrality as critical elements of our work,” Gingerich said. “If a nonprofit wants to do good around a cause, we really want to bring people of all backgrounds to the table.”
Gingerich said her association strongly opposes a provision in the U.S. House Republican tax overhaul that would roll back restrictions on nonprofits engaging in political activity.