- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 4, 2014

MEDFORD, Ore. (AP) - Some Democrats at the Rogue Valley Manor retirement community have taken the organization’s administration to task for canceling a campaign stop by U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley because it would be too politically charged.

“I was outraged,” said Anne Diller, an 80-year-old Manor resident. “People in the community need to know our civil rights are being violated.”

The Manor put the brakes on the Merkley appearance scheduled for March 22 because it could jeopardize the organization’s IRS status as a 501(c)(3) organization. Also, a notice of the meeting inadvertently neglected to mention the gathering was a private event and also included overt campaign language that Merkley is up for re-election this year.

Diller, who expected 100 residents at the Merkley appearance, said the Manor’s ban comes after a January appearance by Dave Dotterrer, an Ashland Republican candidate running this year against Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford.

Under IRS code, a 501(c)(3) organization is prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in any political campaign. A violation of the rule could result in revocation of an organization’s tax-exempt status or fines.

IRS code does allow voter education or registration activities as long as they don’t show any evidence of bias or show favoritism toward a candidate.

David Tucker, a spokesman for the IRS, said he couldn’t comment on any specific cases and referred to extensive documentation provided by his agency on the issue of tax-exempt organizations.

Manor Executive Director Sarah Prewitt Smith said her organization supports residents who want more education or involvement in politics.

“As a 501(c)(3) organization, we are required to adhere to IRS regulations, and our policy on this issue is intended to meet those regulations, which are strict about the use of company resources for political activities,” she said in an email response.

“We have had recent discussions on this not only at the administrative level, but also with residents and our legal department, and we will be seeking a determination from the IRS.”

Smith said the Manor wants to provide programs that meet the interests of residents while remaining compliant with IRS regulations.

Pacific Retirement Services, the parent company for the Manor, also has a policy that prohibits any of its assets or personnel from engaging in any political campaign activity.

The Manor administration determined that the Merkley event violated both PRS policy as well as IRS code.

However, IRS code does allow nonprofits to rent out space for political campaign activities, but PRS’s own policy doesn’t allow for renting out meeting space for public gatherings.

According to an internal email from the Manor, a political event could be held if all candidates for a public office could attend, and the meeting was conducted in a fair and impartial manner.

Diller said the Manor has allowed other political gatherings over the years as long as they were conducted privately.

She said she thinks the Manor is overreacting and should find a way to allow private political events on the grounds. At the same time, Diller said it was a mistake that a “Save the Date” notice didn’t indicate the Merkley appearance was a private event, and that it referred to his possible re-election in November.

According to her understanding of the Manor’s policy, Diller said she wouldn’t be able to have a political gathering at her cottage, and other Democrats couldn’t have gatherings in the Manor’s two apartment towers.

“The PRS (Pacific Retirement Services) regulations are draconian in nature,” she said. “We are really being muzzled.”

According to an internal Manor email, the PRS policy against political gatherings doesn’t specifically mention cottages or apartments. Employees, board members, volunteers and residents are prohibited from using meeting rooms or other facilities such as an auditorium, as well as telephones, computers, faxes, email addresses, bulletin boards, or any other corporate resource, for political activity.

Diller said the Manor is stepping on the civil rights of its residents, who are entitled to receive information from political candidates and educate themselves on political activities in the community.

Under her understanding of PRS policies, residents couldn’t be transported to political events in a Manor bus, Diller said.

She said many residents of the Manor have mobility issues that make it difficult for them to leave the grounds to attend a political event. Others don’t have the financial wherewithal to pay for other transportation alternatives, she said.

In addition, the Manor is a voting precinct unto itself, composed of about 1,000 residents, of which about two-thirds are Republicans and one-third are Democrats, Diller said.

She said she and other Democrats had worked for almost two years to get Merkley to make an appearance at the Manor.

“We were begging, pleading, and I was almost ready to give up my first-born child, and he finally agreed,” Diller said.

Russy D. Sumariwalla, an 80-year-old Manor resident, said he even visited Merkley’s office in Washington, D.C., to encourage the senator to visit the Manor.

Sumariwalla said he formerly worked with the IRS and even wrote IRS rules in a former career.

He said that his understanding of IRS rules indicates a political event could be held at the Manor as long as it is not endorsed or sponsored by the Manor. Sumariwalla said it would violate IRS rules if the Manor endorsed or sponsored an activity that was construed as having political bias.

“We have no interest in harming the Rogue Valley Manor or its 501(c)(3) status,” he said.

Sumariwalla said Manor residents still have rights, including freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

“We did not surrender our constitutional rights at the entrance of the Rogue Valley Manor,” Sumariwalla wrote in an email to Manor executives Thursday.


Information from: Mail Tribune, https://www.mailtribune.com/

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