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Keeping Palin on Rally Roster Was Risky, Groups Were Told

The tumult surrounding the Iranian president’s visit to New York may have subsided, but the controversy over invitations to a rally opposing him continues to reverberate.

Now some are calling for reforms in the way the rally’s lead organizer conducts business.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizers found itself on the hot seat last week after it invited Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin to address the Sept. 23 rally opposite the United Nations. The invitation prompted U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) to renege on an earlier commitment to appear and led to accusations that the conference had blundered, allowing election year politicking to overshadow a bipartisan display of opposition to Iran’s nuclear program.

Eventually the Presidents Conference decided to bar all American elected officials from the rally, but the decision has rankled several of its 50-some members. They are calling for new procedures to be implemented to prevent such a debacle from recurring.

“I do think that I and others will be asking for clarification of the process to try to inhibit it from happening again,” Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, told JTA. “People can make mistakes. And I think this was a bad judgment more than a deliberate attempt on the part of somebody or some people to create a stir here.”

Others are not so sure. In the wake of the rescinding of the Palin invitation, several Jewish figures accused liberal Presidents Conference members of orchestrating her ouster.

“It was Democratic partisans that made this political,” said Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America. “The real issue was giving visibility to Sarah Palin. Liberal Democratic interests trumped concern about Iran.”

The McCain campaign trumpeted the same line, lamenting that Palin was barred under pressure from “Democratic partisans.” The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews accused “organizers” of politicizing the event and invited Palin to address its upcoming banquet. And Caroline Glick, writing in the Jerusalem Post, took aim at two organizational leaders involved in the rally planning — Rabbi Steve Gutow of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and John Ruskay of UJA-Federation of New York — suggesting that associations with left-wing groups earlier in their careers is evidence of their partisan machinations.

Gutow and Ruskay adamantly deny the charges. The issue, insiders say, was concern that hosting Palin without a comparable representative from the Obama campaign constituted a violation of the laws governing tax-exempt organizations.

“For this to be legal, an invitation would have had to be issued to both vice-presidential candidates at the same time so they would have an equal opportunity to speak at the rally,” said Ellen Zimmerman, UJA-Federation’s general counsel.

Zimmerman said she consulted with at least five lawyers specializing in this field, including the former director of the tax-exempt unit at the Internal Revenue Service, who all concluded the Palin appearance would be problematic.

“IRS rules are quite clear,” Zimmerman said. “Given what was potentially a threat to UJA-Federation and the other tax-exempt organization’s exempt status, that was just too much of a risk to take.”

The IRS unit director, Marcus Owens, told JTA that agency rules require that the terms and conditions need to be the same for political invitations by nonprofits to be legal. That would include giving both sides equal amounts of time to respond, he said.

Had the rally gone forward with Palin’s appearance as planned, Owens said it was likely the IRS would have pursued action against the organizers, though he doubted their exempt status would be revoked. Instead, the agency likely would have levied an excise tax and begun an audit, a costly endeavor that sometimes leads to further tax problems.

“You’re playing with fire at that point,” Owens said.

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