A senator was promoted by a nonprofit, then proposed $500,000 in state funding for it

Expert: Somali TV ads for candidates violate law banning political activity, endorsements

By: - May 2, 2022 6:01 am

Somali TV runs ads such as this during campaign season, which legal experts say are a possible violation of IRS laws. YouTube screen shot

Four months after a nonprofit called Somali TV of Minnesota — a YouTube channel with 170,000 subscribers — endorsed his campaign, Sen. Omar Fateh introduced a bill that would give the nonprofit half a million dollars in state funding to provide arts and cultural programming.

Somali TV is a 501(c)(3) organization, a type of nonprofit that risks losing its tax-exempt status if it engages in political activity or endorses candidates.

In June and August 2020, Somali TV ran multiple ads encouraging viewers to vote for Fateh, including one with a website where people could volunteer to work on his campaign. Fateh was an upstart Democratic-Socialist running to unseat influential former DFL Sen. Jeff Hayden. 

The station also provided free advertising for other candidates — most, but not all, with Somali backgrounds — including Minneapolis City Council candidate Abdi Warsame in 2013; state House candidate Mohamed Barre in 2019; and city council candidate Jamal Osman in 2021.

Somali TV President Siyad Salah said in an interview that Somali TV doesn’t endorse the candidates but allows them to send in ads, which the channel runs free of charge.

He said Somali TV changed from a nonprofit to a limited liability corporation a few years ago, but secretary of state documents show the group has always been registered as a nonprofit. When asked about that discrepancy in a followup interview, Salah declined comment.

The IRS says 501(c)(3) nonprofits are “absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” They cannot contribute to political campaigns or make public statements for or against candidates, and violations can mean revocation of tax-exempt status.

Richard Schmalbeck, a Duke University law professor who specializes in nonprofits, said the law clearly prohibits nonprofits from encouraging people to vote for candidates, whether on websites or in pastoral letters.

The reason for the law is to prevent political groups from abusing the tax-free status afforded to churches, charities and other nonprofits. 

IRS enforcement, however, “is not particularly strong in this area,” Schmalbeck said.

Emmett Robertson, a nonprofit attorney at Rubric Legal in Minneapolis, said this type of nonprofit can run advertising, but they must make it available to all candidates on the same terms and not show favoritism toward candidates.

“The facts really matter here,” he said. “A lot of organizations don’t really understand these rules, and, frankly, neither do most attorneys.”

As for Fateh’s bill, Salah said Somali TV has been doing this work in the community for free for 22 years, and Fateh approached him to see if the funding was something he’d be interested in. With state funding, Salah said, the channel could continue to distribute important information about things like COVID-19.

Minneapolis is home to the largest Somali population in North America, and the Minnesota Department of Health turned to Somali TV and other media in diverse communities to try to help overcome vaccine hesitancy. Between 2020 and 2022, Somali TV received nearly $241,000 to do pandemic outreach in a culturally appropriate way, according to MDH spokesperson Garry Bowman.

The Fateh bill (SF2238) would give Somali TV a $250,000 grant in 2022 and $250,000 grant in 2023 from the state’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund to create programming and expand coverage of Somali cultural heritage and history. The program uses sales tax revenue to promote the arts and preserve Minnesota’s history and cultural heritage. No action has been taken on the bill since it was referred to a committee last year.

David Schultz, a law professor at the University of Minnesota and political science professor at Hamline University, said Fateh seeking money for Somali TV after they aired the endorsement of him is — at the very least — a conflict of interest.

“You have the potential here for a quid pro quo,” he said.

Ads urging people to vote for candidates are a violation of federal tax law unless there are “a million disclaimers” on them, he said.

Fateh did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

Fateh grew up in Virginia, where he ran unsuccessfully for the school board in 2015, according to MinnPost, and moved to Minnesota later that year. 

After an unsuccessful 2018 House race, the outspoken progressive won the DFL endorsement and primary election over Hayden in District 62, which comprises south Minneapolis.  

Salah said he has a staff of four and was self-funded prior to the pandemic, when Somali TV began receiving state money through the Department of Health. 

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.