‘Chi for Sheriff’ banner posting irks Mountain Rescue Aspen
October 26, 2018
A campaign volunteer for Pitkin County Sheriff candidate Walter Chi jeopardized Mountain Rescue Aspen's nonprofit status earlier this week by hanging a "Chi for Sheriff" banner on the MRA building on Highway 82, sources said.
The action was not taken at the direction of the MRA Board or any other agency official and involved a lone MRA member, said Justin Hood, MRA Board president. The member responsible — identified by surveillance cameras — hung the large banner on the agency's climbing tower Monday, took a picture and took the banner down, said. It was hanging up for about five minutes, he said.
"In a lot of ways, we're bummed," Hood said. "(The MRA member) really didn't understand the rules of a nonprofit organization. He thought he was being cheeky and cute … and it wasn't funny."
Nonprofits like Mountain Rescue Aspen must follow strict Internal Revenue Service rules forbidding them from engaging in politics or supporting particular politicians, he said.
"If we lose our nonprofit status … we are of no service to anybody in the community," Hood said. "As a board, we're just disappointed … and we're bummed out."
Hood declined to identify the MRA member responsible for the action.
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Chi posted the photo Tuesday morning on his "Walter Chi for Sheriff" Facebook page and urged people to share it. He said Friday he took the photo down the same day after an MRA lawyer called him and told him why the photo was a bad idea.
"When they told me I said there's no way I want to have any trouble with them," Chi said.
Chi said the MRA member and friend of his has been posting banners for him throughout Pitkin County and that Chi gave the man the banner that was hung at MRA. However, Chi said he did not know the man was going to hang the banner at the MRA building and did not direct him to do so.
"I have lots of friends on Mountain Rescue," he said. "I think most people over there — they're tired of Joe. This guy wanted to support me."
DiSalvo said Friday he doesn't buy Chi's explanation.
"This is more than political hijinks," he said. "I can't believe Walter didn't know this was going up at Mountain Rescue Aspen. And it just shows his inexperience."
The action could have ramifications not only for Mountain Rescue Aspen, but also for those who've donated to the nonprofit, he said.
If the IRS revoked MRA's nonprofit status, which could be done retroactively for as long as five years, every donor to the organization during that time who deducted their donation would be on the hook for the taxes, according to a letter sent to all members Wednesday from MRA lawyer Cavanaugh O'Leary.
"The IRS can also levy a big fine on us and, if they don't revoke our status, (they) can put us on probation and/or temporarily suspend our status," O'Leary wrote in the letter. "In other words, it is really serious to violate the restrictions, and the IRS takes it very seriously."
MRA members are not, however, forbidden from being politically active, he said.
"Of course members are free to express their political views outside of MRA so long as you do not associate yourself with MRA when you do and do not use MRA property in the process," O'Leary wrote.
The relationship between DiSalvo and MRA has been a bit rocky in the recent past. The sheriff stripped some responsibilities from the former MRA president in July 2017 after a dispute between the two, which soured relations between the two agencies.
Hood said he didn't know if hanging the banner was meant as a response to DiSalvo for the action against his predecessor.
"I certainly hope not," he said. "Because he's not doing anybody any favors."
DiSalvo said the relationship between the two agencies has improved since the change of leadership.
"We have a good relationship," he said. "There have been some bumps in the road, but nothing we can't get past and continue to support the public."
Hood said there will be ramifications for the MRA member who posted the banner.
"We will be handling it internally," he said.