NewsFox 13 Investigates


FOX 13 Investigates: Centerville mayor accused of improperly using nonprofit to influence election

Posted at 9:12 PM, Aug 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-07 00:40:40-04

CENTERVILLE, Utah — The Centerville City Council has scheduled an emergency meeting after learning Mayor Clark Wilkinson used a non-profit organization to promote his candidacy for re-election, just days before the local primary.

Over the past year, the city has fundraised at least $12,603.77 on behalf of “Centerville Cares,” also known as “The Mayor’s Initiative on Wellness.”

Council members started receiving complaints when an administrator of the Centerville Cares page on Facebook shared video of a campaign event.

“I’m hoping that we can get your support for another four years,” Wilkinson said in the video, appearing alongside two other candidates for Centerville City Council.

Centerville Cares “unshared” the post five days later.

Dave Flowers, a long-time resident of Centerville, voiced his concerns during Tuesday’s public meeting.

“I’ve been living here for the last 21.5 years,” Flowers said. “I’ve seen a lot of different things happen between politicians trying to get elected. Some was good, some was bad, but I’ve never seen anything like what has happened this past week.”

“Centerville Cares is supposed to be about suicide prevention and mental health, not a booster for the mayor’s re-election bid,” he continued. “What I expected from my local government is honesty and fair play in elections.”

Councilman George McEwan attempted to discuss Flowers’ public comments, but Wilkinson cut him off.

“I’m not going to undergo an interrogation right now,” Wilkinson said, expressing frustration that FOX 13 attended the public meeting. “You came in here behind closed doors, bringing in the cameraman and everything else!”

“I was asking a simple question. I didn’t think that you would take it as an interrogation,” McEwan replied. “I understand you’re upset because you are the focus of this, but it is inappropriate to shut this down and not address this immediately.”

McEwan is one of the candidates running against Wilkinson for mayor. However, in an interview with FOX 13 on Tuesday, McEwan stated he feels it is his duty as an elected official to protect the city from the mayor’s actions.

“I was shocked,” McEwan said. “Centerville Cares is a community organization that’s supposed to be a nonprofit concentrating on mental health and wellness. It has no business in politics. It’s also troubling for me as a council member because it was built using city resources.”

Council members voted unanimously to discuss Centerville Cares in an emergency session scheduled for Saturday at 11 a.m.

Wilkinson declined to comment.

Although Centerville Cares refers to itself as the mayor’s initiative, it is technically not affiliated with the city.

This is despite the fact that the Centerville Cares website lists its address as Centerville City Hall. The nonprofit also lists the mayor’s government email as its primary form of contact.

“Centerville Cares has nothing to do with the city,” city manager Brant Hanson confirmed in February in connection with another investigation. “Separate of the city. Nothing to do with the city, but what the connection is is of course the mayor’s involvement.”

Instead, the city’s tax-exempt fundraising arm (known as the Centerville Community Foundation) donates money to Centerville Cares.

“I’m not comfortable with the relationship,” said McEwan. “Ethically, it’s not right.”

According to the Internal Revenue Service, 501(c)(3) organizations are “absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in... any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective office.”

IRS records show Centerville Cares is not a 501(c)(3), but the Centerville Community Foundation is.

State records show Centerville Cares is registered as a “domestic non-profit corporation.”

It is not registered as a charity.

“An organization only needs to register as a charity with [the Division of Consumer Protection] if they are soliciting donations from the public,” according to a spokesperson for the Utah Department of Commerce.

Scott Hansen, an attorney specializing in nonprofits who is not affiliated with this case, said he believes the Centerville Community Foundation’s 501(c)(3) status and subsequent donations to Centerville Cares could cause the city some trouble.

“The prohibition against supporting a candidate is absolute for a 501(c)(3),” Hansen said. “I think it is worthy of an investigation, which is of course what you’re doing.”

“My sense is that it may not pass a sniff test,” he continued. “The IRS may sanction [the Centerville Community Foundation]. They may send a letter asking them to rectify the circumstances. They could fine them, or they could revoke their tax-exempt status.”

Centerville Cares is not accused of inappropriately spending any of the money it received from the city.

“No, they probably used it for its intended purpose of mental health and wellness — but here’s where it gets sticky for me… The organization has stepped into the political arena. By posting the mayor’s cottage meeting, it has corrupted its purpose,” McEwan said. “This is a breach of trust with the community. The community did not know that organization was being built up for re-election purposes."

In a separate matter, the city’s fundraising practices have been under criminal investigation by the Utah Attorney General’s Office, also related to the mayor’s non-profit.

As FOX 13 previously reported, the case was originally being investigated by the Davis County Attorney’s Office.

PREVIOUS REPORT: Centerville’s fundraising for suicide prevention prompts criminal fraud investigation

In that case, a donor said he was promised his contributions for suicide prevention would be matched by the county and state. Once he found out that wasn’t going to happen, the Centerville Community Foundation voted not to give him a refund.

“I cannot have the city put itself in legal jeopardy, and if our mayor is doing that through these activities — which is already prefaced by the fact that we have one criminal investigation going — adding to that for the purposes of re-election is not a great thing for the city,” McEwan said.

Although the mayor has declined to comment, FOX 13 has obtained emails sent to Centerville City Council, indicating the Facebook post was an “accidental posting.”

Wilkinson also stated he would not be able to attend Saturday morning’s emergency meeting, recommending that it be scheduled “after August 18th.

Centerville’s primary election is next Tuesday, August 10th.

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