Theater programs pulled after Wilhelm political questions raised

WILLMAR -- Printed programs for a Barn Theatre comedy were pulled at the last minute after questions were raised about whether they violated regulations prohibiting tax-exempt nonprofit organizations from supporting political candidates.

WILLMAR -- Printed programs for a Barn Theatre comedy were pulled at the last minute after questions were raised about whether they violated regulations prohibiting tax-exempt nonprofit organizations from supporting political candidates.

The community theater decided Tuesday to remove the programs. The show, a production of Neil Simon's "Barefoot in the Park," opens tonight.

The issue came to light when the West Central Tribune received an advance copy of the program, something The Barn routinely provides for the newspaper's arts coverage.

At issue are two items in The Barn's printed program that was to be handed out this week and next week to theater-goers attending "Barefoot in the Park."

One is a volunteer profile highlighting Bonnie Wilhelm, a longtime Barn Theatre supporter, volunteer and former staff member who also is running for the Minnesota House of Representatives. It contains a sentence saying she is running for election.


The other is a biographical profile about Wilhelm's husband, Dr. Rob Kruger -- who is also on The Barn's board of directors -- that appears in a section listing the show's cast and crew members. Kruger's four-sentence profile ends with the statement, "this fall remember to 'Vote wisely, vote Wilhelm.'"

Barn Theatre officials weren't aware there was a potential law violation until a reporter contacted them Tuesday. Once they were notified, they said they would take prompt steps to remove the programs.

Officials said Tuesday it wasn't their intention to skirt the Internal Revenue Service regulation.

"We try very hard to not do this," said Nancy Geiger, a member of The Barn's board of directors.

Geiger said she hadn't seen the program before it was printed. If she had, "I would have been very upset," she said.

"We knew nothing about this."

Neither Wilhelm nor Kruger could be reached Tuesday for comment.

Tim Miller, director of marketing and public relations for the nonprofit theater, said the cast and crew profiles were written by cast and crew members themselves.


"I wasn't trying to do anything political," Miller said. "There was nothing politically minded at all about this."

According to IRS regulations, nonprofit tax-exempt organizations may not engage in politicking -- a ban that includes endorsing candidates, distributing statements for or against candidates, raising campaign funds or involvement in any kind of activity that supports or opposes a candidate.

Violation can result in an IRS inquiry and possibly the loss of the organization's tax-exempt status.

Carrie Resch, a spokeswoman for the Internal Revenue Service in St. Paul, said that without investigating the details, the IRS couldn't comment on whether The Barn Theatre may have violated tax regulations.

"The challenge is that with tax-exempt organizations, so much of what may be permissible is dependent upon facts and circumstances," she said.

A charities review expert, however, said the inclusion of a political slogan is a clear tax law violation.

"It's the organization's publication and clearly it crossed the line," said Rich Cowles, executive director of the Charities Review Council of Minnesota. "It sounds persuasive and that's really stretching beyond where they're supposed to go. These kinds of things are a risk because everybody sees it. Someone could complain."

Rep. Al Juhnke -- who is Wilhelm's opponent and a Barn Theatre volunteer as well -- also believes the program's content crossed the regulatory line.


"It's very clear. It's not that fine of a line," he said. "When you go to the theater, you don't want it to be a partisan thing -- and it shouldn't be. It's not worth even the risk. It's a big deal to lose your not-for-profit status."

Juhnke said he is not involved in Barn productions during election season. "I don't want to be seen as promoting myself," he said.

The Barn Theatre isn't alone in trying to navigate between politics and tax rules. In response to increasing questions and concerns, the IRS is stepping up its education efforts this year to help tax-exempt nonprofit organizations understand the law.

"It's been a hot topic," Resch said.

Cowles said the regulations can be particularly confusing for organizations that rely heavily on volunteers.

"I think it is an area that isn't real well understood. A lot of people aren't aware of the law. They've got passion for their mission and that's all they're doing," he said. "They maybe aren't attuned to what the legal restrictions are."

Minnesota is ahead of most states in providing training, education and even online resources such as the Charities Review Council's "Accountability Wizard" to help nonprofits maintain compliance with the law, Cowles said.

"There is an obligation for nonprofits to pay attention to the law and be mindful of what they're doing," he said.

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