Tuesday, November 10, 2009

MVNU Dean Endorsed Paula Barone

In a school district still wrestling with issues of church and state, one school board candidate won a seat on the board following a campaign that involved a much publicized endorsement from a dean at Mount Vernon Nazarene University.

Paula Barone’s campaign ran both a radio commercial and at least one print ad that made reference to the connection between MVNU and the woman that was giving the endorsement—Dean Sonja Smith.

MVNU is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization. As such, the university cannot make political endorsements.

The IRS gives the follow explanation in publication 557: “If any of the activities (whether or not substantial) of your organization consist of participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office, your organization will not qualify for tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(3).”

Request for comment from President Dan Martin’s assistant Laura Short resulted in the scheduling of an interview with Provost Henry Spaulding for November 20.

The print ad that ran in the Mount Vernon News on November 2 was devoted to Smith’s endorsement of Barone. It had the following headline: “MVNU Dean Sonja Smith recommends Paula Barone.” Below that was a photo of Smith and Barone. The ad included a letter of endorsement that was designed in such a way that it appeared to be on MVNU letterhead.

(This ad was published in the Mount Vernon News the day before the school board election.)

Barone told AccountabilityInTheMedia.com that Smith was very much aware of the content of the ad. “The ad layout used Sonja’s name and title, as provided by her,” Barone said. (Click here to read full response from Barone.)

In an interview with Smith, the dean said that she did not review the print ad before it was published. Smith said that the letter in the ad was written by her but was provided to Barone via email and not on MVNU stationary.

Smith insisted that all the information in the ad was factual—she had endorsed Barone and also that the job title used in the ad was correct and even available at the university’s website.

The headline used in the ad was not something that she wrote, Smith said.

Smith stated that the election is done and over with—at this point she felt bringing up the ad served no useful purpose.

She had no intention of implying that the university was endorsing the candidate and anyone who interpreted the ad that way did not read it carefully enough, Smith said. She pointed out that nowhere in the ad does it say “MVNU endorses Paula Barone.”


UltraCon said...

It's a shame, really, that nothing has been done about this.

As a student of, employee of, and former local candidate I was shocked to see Dr. Smith's endorsement of Paula Barone for Mount Vernon School Board. Aside from my obvious political opposition to most of what Barone stands for, the bigger issue is that MVNU policy prohibits faculty or staff from endorsing candidates of ANY persuasion for ANY office. It's simple, really - the school accepts federal funding and is associated with a Church - thus, they cannot, in any official capacity, endorse a candidate for office. Dr. Smith stepped outside of the bounds of responsible policy and ignored the rules in using her official title (and what appears to be her letterhead layout...) in the endorsement ad for Paula Barone. It is a shame that this has been overlooked thus far, and I hope the administration of the school will take a look at their policy and follow the necessary procedures.

Even though she states that she didn't provide it on letterhead, Smith should have asked to proof the article before it was published.

Unknown said...

Excuse me, but if Ms. Smith had endorsed Mr. Thompson, I wonder how you would have written the story. Much differently, I'm sure. Too bad we can't see the "parallel universe" where this happened.

Sam Stickle (mountvernon1805) said...


Even if Dr. Smith had endorsed Mr. Thompson I still would have wanted to report her side of the story.

Unknown said...

Tyler, I can tell you are not an attorney. Of course, I'm not either. But I've been around a bit longer than you, and I have a bit of a deeper understanding of what's going on. Dr. Smith gave a personal endorsement, acting as a private citizen, using her own time and her own money. In her endorsement, she chose to give her title to provide context to her endorsement. No violation of the law has taken place.

Now, Tyler, you might feel that she went a bit too far, even if she did remain within the letter of the law. Well, sir, I saw your campaign signs outside the career center, which is a polling place, on Election Day. Were your signs outside of the radius in which electioneering is prohibited? Yes, I suppose they were. But they were toeing the line, were they not? Do you really think it is right that voters have to pass campaign propaganda on PUBLIC property when they go to vote?

Chris "Jesdisciple" said...

Yeah, overall this went too far. Being in the university's newspaper and using what amounts to an official trademark of the dean's office could give the impression that Dr. Smith is endorsing Barone in an official capacity. At the least, a disclaimer could have been included ("MVNU does not necessarily...").

However, I think she wrote the letter in good faith and using her credentials does not imply official endorsement.

I wish I could find quality reporting on the national level... (That's how I came here.) Keep it up.

Disclosure: I'm some random conservative Web surfer.

Sam Stickle (mountvernon1805) said...

Chris "Jesdisciple",

Thanks for your comment.

Just as a clarification for those that read the article and are not from the local area—the Mount Vernon News is the daily newspaper, not a publication of MVNU.

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