As Louisville Metro Council candidate Jecorey Arthur addresses potential campaign finance violations in his ties to Simmons College of Kentucky, he’s shifted his focus in public statements to his campaign’s use of resources owned by Louisville Public Media, his employer and WFPL’s parent company.
Arthur has used resources from both nonprofits as he runs for the District 4 seat in May’s Democratic primary election.
A WFPL report last week raised potential issues surrounding Arthur’s relationship with Simmons, where he teaches percussion and which appeared to provide in-kind services and support for his December campaign announcement. Arthur is also the music education manager for WUOL, which is also a part of Louisville Public Media. Arthur has declined repeated interview requests from WFPL, and did not provide answers to detailed questions sent via email Wednesday.
Since the publication of the initial story, Arthur has denied campaign finance violations stemming from the use of Simmons’ resources during his campaign announcement on December 9. Arthur has also called WFPL’s coverage “unjustified” and “orchestrated.” He said in a statement Tuesday that he would send reimbursement for equipment he “inadvertently used,” belonging to Louisville Public Media, during his campaign announcement press conference at Simmons in December.
Meanwhile, Arthur hasn’t addressed the value of campaign announcements from Simmons’ public relations director.
As nonprofits, both Simmons and Louisville Public Media are barred by federal tax law from endorsing or providing support to political campaigns, and forbidden by Kentucky campaign finance law from directly contributing to candidates. Kentucky law also prohibits candidates from accepting contributions from corporations, including nonprofits.
Louisville Public Media’s president, Stephen George, has publicly said the equipment’s usage was not authorized and the organization would not accept payment.
But the Arthur campaign said in an emailed statement Tuesday that it would attempt to reimburse Louisville Public Media $60 for the rental of the equipment, and had sent a disclosure to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance to report it. The campaign did not provide a copy of the disclosure, which is not yet available in KREF’s online database.
@jecoreyarthur campaign will not be commenting further on @WFPLNews hit piece! All issues have been addressed! WE ARE MOVING ON! Check cut to LPM and mailed today for inadvertent use of sound equipment! pic.twitter.com/iXASspAlY4
— Sean Vandevander (@Vandeevs) January 22, 2020
“Louisville Public Media did not authorize the use of our equipment by the Arthur campaign and will not accept payment for it, as we do not allow our resources to be used for any activity outside our mission,” George said in an emailed statement.
He informed Arthur of this over the weekend in a letter, which was shared by Vandevander on social media, then deleted.
George declined to comment on personnel matters.
“An investigation into the unauthorized use of our equipment took place and has concluded,” George said.
While the Arthur campaign is attempting to reimburse Louisville Public Media for equipment use, it has shed little light on Simmons’ support beyond denying it received an endorsement or any contributions from the college.
Arthur announced his candidacy for Metro Council in Simmons’ Administration Building in December, in front of a backdrop peppered with the nonprofit religious college’s logo. Simmons’ public relations director sent three press releases about the event from her official college email address. The school’s official Facebook page livestreamed the announcement, and both the Simmons Facebook and Twitter accounts posted pictures of Arthur standing with Simmons president Kevin Cosby, who is also senior pastor at St. Stephen Baptist Church in Louisville’s California neighborhood.
In an email sent to WFPL on January 6 in response to detailed questions about Simmons’ activities, attorney Chris Sanders said the school had not supported Arthur’s campaign in any way.
“We don’t endorse candidates, and we don’t provide campaign support,” Sanders wrote in an email. “We haven’t made a financial contribution to [Arthur’s] campaign. We also haven’t provided him property use, staff time, equipment use, or any other in-kind support.”
Krystal Goodner, the Simmons public relations director who sent the press releases, told the Courier Journal late last week that she did so on her own time. That article did not say whether she addressed the use of her school email address for that purpose, and Goodner declined to comment when reached by phone Wednesday.
Numerous tax experts told WFPL that if Simmons provided in-kind contributions to a political campaign, it could legally pose problems for the college’s nonprofit status. The executive director of the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance said if Arthur’s campaign didn’t disclose all in-kind contributions — and in the case of corporations, reimburse for them and report — it could be a campaign finance violation. Arthur’s campaign hadn’t made any such disclosures as of last week.
On Friday night, Arthur said in a statement that he had asked Simmons to delete any social media posts “that may infer support” for his campaign. Both he and Simmons maintain the school’s space is free for public use. Goodner did not respond to an emailed request on Wednesday for copies of any policies regarding the use of that space or Simmons’ logo, which was prominently displayed behind Arthur during his announcement.
Then on Tuesday, Arthur’s campaign said in a statement that John Steffen, executive director of the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, advised him to assess fair-market value for the use of Louisville Public Media’s equipment.
The statement also said that KREF staff “confirmed that the free community space we used to announce is not a donation.”
Steffen told WFPL on Wednesday that he spoke with Arthur campaign spokesman Vandevander. He confirmed that he advised Vandevander to assess the fair market value of Louisville Public Media’s equipment: as long as there is a good faith effort to reimburse the provider, neither party would be in violation of law, regardless of whether the payment is accepted, he said.
But Steffen said he didn’t tell the campaign that the use of Simmons’ space did not count as a donation; instead, he said he spoke generally about using public space.
“If that space is truly available for anyone to use that signs up for it, as I was told, then that would be the case. It wouldn’t have a value to report,” Steffen said.
Further, Steffen said he did not recall discussing the press releases sent by Simmons’ public relations director using her school email address, or Simmons’ livestream, during his conversation with Vandevander. Steffen declined to comment specifically on whether he thought those services had value. But he said KREF has received complaints about email use in other campaigns.
“It’s something we could look into further, if ever a complaint was received about it,” he said.
A KREF representative confirmed Wednesday that there were no active or prior complaints in its database involving Arthur or any of the other six District 4 candidates.
Experts interviewed by WFPL said any endorsement or donation from a nonprofit could be a violation of federal tax law, which prohibits political intervention by tax-exempt organizations. However, they also said enforcement of that prohibition was unlikely.
In the Tuesday night statement, Arthur’s campaign said, “Simmons College DID NOT make any endorsement or in kind donation.”
“Any congratulatory tweet made by Simmons College was likewise not an endorsement and mirrors tweets” from George and WUOL, which congratulated Arthur on his candidacy, the campaign statement said. In George’s tweet in December, he shared WFPL’s explanation of how the newsroom would cover Arthur’s campaign.
Proud that my friend and @WUOL colleague @jecoreyarthur is taking his ideas for the future of the city to another level. Here’s how the @WFPLNews newsroom will be covering him and his campaign: https://t.co/uzukbgfP5P
— Stephen George (@sgeorge) December 10, 2019
Tax law allows nonprofit employees and leaders to endorse or support political candidates as long as they are not doing so in their official capacities.
Simmons president Kevin Cosby also recently used his personal Twitter account to call for Kentuckians to back state Rep. Charles Booker in his run for U.S. Senate.
Let’s right a new script, it’s time to Book Booker!!!!! https://t.co/kjVTWlPwxb
— Kevin W Cosby (@KWCosby) January 6, 2020
University of Kentucky tax law professor Jennifer Bird-Pollan said it’s important to take the full context of the social media posts into consideration. In this case, she said she thought the event at Simmons made that organization’s actions seem more like political activity, whereas the WUOL tweet didn’t rise to that level.
“It’s okay for nonprofit entities to acknowledge that political events are happening,” Bird-Pollan said. “They’re just supposed to refrain from advocating for one candidate rather than another.”
Bird-Pollan said it’s unlikely anyone from Simmons set out to violate IRS rules.
“It sounds like people sort of got confused about what was permitted and what wasn’t, maybe got excited about the, you know, the fact that somebody was running and sort of forgot that … the City Council is also a political office,” she said.
But she said it’s important for nonprofits to know the rules, particularly with federal elections looming.
“Especially here in a presidential election year … and the year in which we’re electing a senator, people should remember this kind of behavior is not acceptable from nonprofits,” she said.