Leppert Potentially Jeopardizes Tax-Exempt Status of Two South Dallas Churches By Telling Audience Members to Vote No on Props 1 and 2

Categories: Politics

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Sam Merten
Mayor Tom Leppert did not mince words Sunday: "Vote no on Proposition 1. Vote no on Proposition 2."
Mayor Tom Leppert and wife Laura spent yesterday worshiping at churches in South Dallas, where services were interrupted so the mayor could give his convention center hotel sales pitch and instruct audience members how to vote May 9.

"We need you to go to the polls and vote no on Proposition 1 and no on Proposition 2," Leppert said at the 10 a.m. service at Highland Hills United Methodist Church. "You are voting for the future of Dallas -- you're not voting for a building. And I can tell you, I hope when you go out, you vote the way Dr. [Sheron] Patterson and I believe is the right course."

Leppert spoke to approximately 100 people at Highland Hills before arriving at Concord Missionary Baptist Church, where he gave a similar speech to more than 1,000.

"It is absolutely critical that the city of Dallas rises up and says no to both of these referendums," he said at the end of the 12 p.m. service. "If you're not registered to vote, you need to register to vote -- April 9 is the deadline on that. And then you need to go out and vote on May 9. Vote no on Proposition 1. Vote no on Proposition 2."

The mayor's actions could jeopardize the tax-exempt status of both churches and any others where he's told people how to vote. The Internal Revenue Code prohibits the direct or indirect involvement of 501(c)(3) organizations in political campaigns, which is defined as donating funds or issuing public statements in favor of or in opposition to a candidate or proposition.

"It's inappropriate and unfair for the mayor and his associates to put pastors in the position where they can either jeopardize their tax status or have to say no to the city's mayor," says Brooks Love of Citizens Against the Taxpayer-Owned Hotel. "They love the city and they want to do whatever they can to air out issues, but to have the mayor in the pulpit telling people how to vote on a proposition is a completely unfair and inappropriate position to put these pastors in."

UPDATE: It has been brought to our attention that the Internal Revenue Code referenced refers only to political candidates and not propositions or issues, which is why we were careful to use statements like "potentially" and "could." We'll have more clarification as it becomes available.

UPDATE to Update: We felt comfortable posting this item based on information from IRS Publication 1828.

...section 501(c)(3) organizations must avoid any issue advocacy that functions as political campaign intervention.

For a definitive answer, we contacted the Internal Revenue Service. We spoke with Kathy Hopton, a customer service representative handling calls for tax-exempt organizations, and asked if the Leppert scenario was acceptable.

"I don't think, no," she said. "I don't think that's allowed as a 501(c)(3)."

After collecting some information from us, she stressed that an agent would call back with a formal answer within 15 business days. Although her statement is not definitive, it proves Leppert's actions are at least entering into a gray area.

"As far as speaking about an issue, that's one thing," Hopton said. "But I think when somebody comes in and advises the congregation how to vote is when you get into the hairy area."

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Sam Merten
Leppert, a noted Republican, quoted President Barack Obama at both churches as saying, "You can't move forward if you don't do anything." Leppert then touted the 3,000 jobs the hotel will yield in the first two years along with the 800 permanent jobs.

"It's rather patronizing and disingenuous of the mayor to be quoting Obama simply because he's in front of an African-American audience, especially given his Republican voting history," Love says.

Leppert's South Dallas consultant, Willis Johnson, was at both churches and appears to be the middleman charged with setting up the arrangements for Leppert. Johnson was cited by Dr. Sheron Patterson, the senior pastor at Highland Hills and a supporter of Leppert since his mayoral campaign, as a friend in attendance, as was District 8 city council candidate LeVar Thomas.

Thomas says inserting politics into church services has been done for years, but people are starting to realize that those tactics are outdated.

"We have highly educated and informed voters, and I think a lot of people might have been turned off by that, to be honest and frank," he says. "They don't want to be dictated to from the pulpit."

At both churches, Leppert described the opposition as "an individual who owns a hotel," which has been a key part of his campaign. However, he contradicted this statement at Concord when talking about the TV commercials from Citizens Against the Taxpayer-Owned Hotel.

"Those commercials have led you to believe that it's about an individual or that it's about a building," he said. "It's not about either one of those. It is about the future of Dallas."

Thomas says it's misleading for the mayor to frame the opposition as one man protecting an interest. "Harlan Crow and his group will be fine if this gets built; it's the taxpayers that face the ultimate risk. It's a smokescreen because he doesn't want to face the issues."

Leppert, who spoke for approximately seven minutes at each church, said Dallas was once a Top Five convention destination, but it has slipped from that ranking because business has been lost to other cities that invested in convention center hotels.

"He says what he wants you to know, and he leaves out the integral parts. He doesn't mention that if the hotel fails, the taxpayers are on the hook," Thomas says. "He's trying to paint a pretty picture with no risk whatsoever."

Leppert stressed that there probably won't be a large turnout at the polls May 9, and he urged everyone to register to vote, encouraging them to tell others about the importance of both propositions.

Leppert's comments at Highland Hills:

Leppert's comments at Concord:

Rev. Bryan Carter, the senior pastor at Concord, tries to mop up Leppert's mess:

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Sam Merten
Flanked by Rev. Bryan Carter, Mayor Tom Leppert prepares to remove all doubt about the convention center.

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Sam Merten

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Sam Merten
Mayor Tom Leppert and wife Laura praying Sunday morning at Highland Hills United Methodist Church.

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Sam Merten


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