Gov. Ron DeSantis flags on the USS Orleck raise questions about politics and non-profits

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – This past weekend, flags for Governor Ron DeSantis were up on the USS Orleck, and that had some people asking, ‘Can political flags be posted on a ship that’s run by a non-profit?’

The IRS prohibits 501(c)(3) non-profits from directly or indirectly participating in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to a candidate.

The IRS says it can’t comment on specific organizations or say if any complaints were filed about the DeSantis flags on the USS Orleck this weekend.

But an attorney with a nonpartisan organization tells us non-profits can host political events as long as they provide equal access to both sides.

Ron DeSantis flags draped the railings of the USS Orleck Saturday as boats paraded down the St. Johns River in honor of the governor.

Watching from the retired Navy ship were GOP party leaders. The Duval County Republican party had rented the ship for the event.

News4JAX got a tip about this IRS statute, which reads:

All 501(c)(3) orgs “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” It says violations may result in the denial or revocation of an organization’s tax-exempt status.

We asked the chair of the Duval GOP about the statute Saturday.

“Is that a conflict there?”

“No not at all,” Dean Black replied. “The Republican Party is actually leasing the facility and those are our decorations, and we are allowed to do that.”

But some, including Duval County Democratic Party Chair Daniel Henry, say the appearance is concerning. “It’s inappropriate for them to be promoting any kind of political message, Democrat or Republican.”

Stephen Spaulding, who is a senior attorney at pro-democracy nonprofit Common Cause, says non-profits can rent out their spaces for political events, as long as they charge market rates and make their space available to members of other parties, too.

“As long as they’re being treated like any other member of the public that might want to rent that facility out, that’s going to be permissible.” Spaulding said.

Daniel Bean, who is the president of the Jacksonville Historic Naval Ship Association, said the ship is available for anyone to rent for events, and the rate doesn’t change for different parties.

“We weren’t endorsing Governor DeSantis,” Daniel Bean, president of the Jacksonville Historic Naval Ship Association, said. “We were celebrating Governor DeSantis, or the Republican Party of Florida. So similar, like when the President comes hopefully one day and he wants to, in his staff want to put ‘Build Back Better’ on there. That’s not endorsing President Biden for reelection, that’s celebrating the achievements of President Biden.”

He says another factor is money- they need the money from events like that Flotilla Saturday to support their mission -- which means they’ll host events from whoever will pay, regardless of party.

Bean said the Duval County GOP paid $3,000 total to rent the ship from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. for the flotilla viewing Saturday and for an hour and 15 minute fireworks viewing that evening at a rate of $10 a head. He said the DeSantis flags were removed after 2 p.m.

“Basically, our standard is now $10 a head...$14 a head for reunions and things of that nature,” Bean said. “We intend to charge $16 per person once the ship opens up for real. But again...we’ve been here since March 24. So we’ll have to wait and see how things work out. We’re also going to be looking at the other 44 ships on display in our country and see what their pricing is like.”

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