Cedar Rapids Mayor pressures non-profit to cancel event featuring competitor

Published: Jul. 19, 2021 at 10:00 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart pressured a non-profit to cancel an event featuring one of his two opponents for the upcoming mayoral election.

The video obtained by KCRG-TV9 shows Hart suggesting CSPS Hall, a non-profit involved in the arts, could lose funding from the city’s hotel-motel tax. Hart sits on a committee that recommends which non-profits should receive funds from the city’s hotel-motel tax. He also gets to vote on the funding as part of the city council.

CSPS describes that hotel-motel tax funding as critical to their operation.

Hart addressed the voicemail to Taylor Bergen, who is the executive director of CSPS.

“Taylor, this is Brad Hart,” Hart said. “This event you are having on Friday is a violation of your 501(c) (3) status, and it significantly damages any possibility of CSPS getting any hotel-motel tax funds from the city in the future. It’s complete bullshit, and if you don’t know that you have violated your 501(c) (3) status, you should not be in the role you’re in.”

CSPS was planning to host a fundraiser for the Advocates for Social Justice and the Academy for Scholastic and Personal Success. Amara Andrews, who is running against Hart for mayor, has a leadership role in both groups. Her campaign also advertised her appearance at the two events. Non-profits are not allowed to endorse political candidates but can rent out venues. After Hart’s voicemail, CSPS said on Facebook it was brought to its attention that the event at CSPS might imply an endorsement of a candidate in an election. The nonprofit then canceled the event.

“However, to make our stance abundantly clear: that the CSPS organization does not endorse political candidates, we have canceled Saturday’s event,” it wrote on Facebook. “Patrons who have already purchased a ticket will be contacted by the CSPS staff. If any patron has an interest in attending an improv event this weekend, we suggest they check online and social media for opportunities to experience improv.”

The Andrews campaign continued to advertise the event at a new venue and encouraged people to bring a lawn chair or picnic blanket along with a $50 donation to the campaign. The location was changed to an address, which the Cedar Rapids City Assessor said is own by Amara Andrews.

In a statement to TV9, Hart apologized for the voicemail pressuring the non-profit.

“CSPS is a valuable part of our community so it was important that it understand the potential ramifications of its actions—jeopardizing its charitable status,” Hart said, in the statement. “However, I should have delivered that message more tactfully. I apologize for letting my frustrations get the best of me right then.”

The city of Cedar Rapids has a Board of Ethics to investigate potential conflicts of interest. Those include acting in a private capacity on matters dealt with as a city official. They also include using private information for reasons not related to city business, taking actions where an official has a private financial interest, and accepting gifts in violation of city and state law.

The Cedar Rapids Board of Ethics has received no complaints in regards to the voicemail Hart left a local non-profit. The board can either start an investigation on its own or it would be forced to if someone filed a complaint. The Andrews campaign and CSPS told TV9 they don’t plan to write a complaint.

Gary Streit, who is a board member for the Cedar Rapids Board of Ethics, said in an email he hasn’t decided if he will ask the board if it wants to initiate an investigation into the mayor’s voicemail. Bob Teig, who is a former member of the city’s Board of Ethics, said an investigation into conflict of interest like this is very rare.

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