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    May 28, 2008  



Perhaps you've heard about a little to-do over Barack Obama, a church, and a speech? Actually, maybe not this one—which doesn't involve Rev. Wright, but rather IRS questions over a June '07 speech Obama gave to 10,000 members of the United Church of Christ. In February, the IRS opened an inquiry into whether the address compromised the Protestant denomination's tax-exempt status, but after some quick advocacy from WilmerHale's Bill Wilkins and Brian Menkes, the taxman this month reversed course and issued the church a clean bill of health.


We're never happy to get letters from the IRS, but Bill gladly shows off the agency's May 13th correspondence affirming the Obama speech didn't violate statutory language that 501(c)(3)'s may not "intervene in any political campaign." The whole thing started back in 2006, when the UCC (that's the church mind you, not the commercial code) invited the junior Senator from Illinois to speak at a 50th anniversary gathering at the Hartford, Connecticut Civic Center. By the time of the event he'd become a Presidential candidate and rock star, eventually raising questions at the IRS over whether his appearance (Obama was one of 60 speakers) amounted to a UCC endorsement of his candidacy.


In response, Bill and Brian (soaking up the fame that comes rarely to tax attorneys) amassed evidence that the UCC had steered clear of any such implication by, for instance, barring Obama campaigners from electioneering at the event and emphasizing, in introductory remarks, the personal nature of his appearance. Within two weeks of their March submission, Brian received his first tip from IRS contacts that the agency would be ruling favorably. It made for a happy end to a matter that came to Wilmer through the UCC's Chicago-based national special counsel, Don Clark, who conducted beauty contest interviews on a swing through DC. The all-star squad on Wilmer's pitch included former SG Seth Waxman and appellate standout Randy Moss (evidently when he's off the football field). Probably didn't hurt that Wilmer offered to take the case pro bono.


This case landed right in Bill's wheelhouse. When not posing for Bisnow photo shoots at the firm's picturesque locations—here, the rooftop view of the World Bank across Pennsylvania—he devotes much of his practice to advising universities and other non-profits on tax questions relating to lobbying activities. And in August, he becomes Chair of the ABA's 21,000-member tax section. You know what that means: lots of speeches.

John Ford, a former lawyer, is Bisnow's Managing Editor. Got a story tip? Pass it on to john@bisnow.com.

Gilbert Randolph
DC United
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