ROYERSFORD - In local elections like the ones in the May 21 primary, candidates oftentimes are familiar people, perhaps a co-worker, friend or a fellow member of a community organization.

An instinct is to throw support behind such a candidate.

But how that is done, especially when if a member of a 501(c)(3) non-profit, could bring scrutiny.

Endorsing or trying to influence the public, even if they're members of the same non-profit, isn't allowed, according to a local lawyer who deals with such organizations.

'I think a lot of people just don't know they're not supposed to do that,' said Kelly Phillips Erb, a Chester County lawyer who contributes to Forbes magazine and authors the blog 'Taxgirl.'

Among the organizations that fall under a 501(c)(3) non-profit designation are churches, educational organizations, charitable organizations and community sports associations.

Recently, rumors circulated that Spring-Ford Rams Youth Football and Cheerleading violated its status as a 501(c)(3) when an email from group president, Mike Engro, went out to the organization's parents endorsing some candidates.

'Tuesday May 21st is the primary election for school board candidates; I would like to highly recommend that we get behind Tom DiBello, Joe Ciresi, as well as Ed Dressler, Will Cromley and Helen Karchner,' part of the email read. 'We need to keep Spring-Ford moving forward academically and with your help in voting for the people mentioned we can ensure that happens.'

Engro signed the letter as the president of Spring-Ford Youth Football and Cheerleading.

The problem with the rumors of impropriety is that Spring-Ford Rams Youth Football and Cheerleading actually isn't currently a 501(c)(3), according to an online search of the IRS non-profit list.

DiBello and Ciresi currently serve as the president and vice president, respectively, of the Spring-Ford Area School Board. Dressler and Cromley also currently serve on the board, though Dressler lost on both sides of the ticket Tuesday and Cromley is unopposed. Karchner is a newcomer looking to fill Clara Gudolonis' seat, who is not running for a new term.

'I don't have any political aspirations,' Engro told The Mercury last week. 'I don't know if they're Republican or Democrat.'

At a school board meeting where he was scheduled to speak for the organization, Engro said he was inspired by a presentation he saw and wanted to get behind Ciresi and DiBello, who serves as the football organization's vice president.

'What they talked about is how technology in the classroom is allowing teachers to jump on issues when they arrive,' Engro said. 'Quite honestly, I was moved. I had friends (who) were saying, 'We're going to take our kids and go to Malvern (Prep).''

Education is a big part of the program Engro serves as president for.

'We don't give out helmet stickers for making a tackle or making a touchdown. We give them out for an A on a test,' he said.

The program plans to expand beyond just athletes, hoping to partner with the school district to introduce a multimedia program for children interested in possibly doing sports broadcasting as opposed to playing.

Feeling that the current school board was the best for the district where many of the youth in the football and cheerleading organization attend school, Engro wanted to support them.

DiBello said Engro told him he wanted to support him but didn't think of it as an organizational thing.

'I don't know if he thought of it one way or another,' DiBello said. 'I don't think it came as a league thing. I think he did it as a parent and has two kids in the district and he was impressed with what was going on in the district.'

Things would have been different if Engro wanted to throw the actual organization's support for him, DiBello said.

'If Mike had called and said, Spring-Ford Youth Football and Cheer is going to run an ad in the paper for you, then I'd have told him, 'Wait,'' DiBello said.

Ciresi said he didn't know about the email until The Mercury contacted him.

Spring-Ford Youth Athletic League is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, one on which Engro, as the head of the football program, serves on the board. However, according to Engro and DiBello, the organizations are separate.

Scott Smiley, who serves on the executive board of the Spring-Ford Youth Athletic League, said the board didn't know about the email.

Erb said there was no legal issue regarding that because Engro's email did not represent him as a board member of Spring-Ford Youth Athletic League, just the football program's president.

'It depends on how you portray it,' Erb said.

Trouble has come to churches in the past, Erb said, specifically to a pastor in Florida named Wiley Drake who endorsed Mike Huckabee on church letterhead. After some complaints, the IRS investigated him.

That doesn't mean the heads of organizations cannot have political opinions as private citizens. It just matters whether they're representing their organization in supporting a candidate.

'For example, if I were to wear my Salvation Army T-shirt while I'm handing out leaflets, that could create some confusion,' Erb said.

If there's a likelihood of confusion between the representation of a private citizen and the organization, the IRS might decide a violation happened.

Although the Spring-Ford Youth Football and Cheerleading isn't currently a 501(c)(3), both Engro and DiBello said they're looking to file paperwork in the future to become one.

'One of the things he needs to be careful of (is situations like this can) result in a denial or revocation,' Erb said. 'If they're applying for the status, they could be denied if the IRS felt this was a violation and continued. If it's a one-off thing, if the IRS felt they did it because they're not tax exempt and it just happened once, then it wouldn't be a problem. If a pattern develops, that might be a problem.'

Such a pattern doesn't appear likely in the case of Spring-Ford Youth Football and Cheerleading.

In hindsight, Engro said he probably wouldn't put his organization title by his name.

'I'm all about the kids and this was nothing more than I'm proud,' of the district, he said.

Follow Frank Otto on Twitter @fottojourno.

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