Minnesota lawmaker who rode nonprofit fame to House seat gets tax exempt status revoked
Rep. Dawn Gillman, R-Dassel, shot to prominence when she raised over $500,000 for a nonprofit called Let Them Play MN, which sued Gov. Tim Walz twice in an effort to keep high school athletes on the field, court and rink during a pandemic shutdown.
“As the founder of ‘Let Them Play Minnesota,’ a grassroots movement that exploded to more than 25,000 members, I raised more than $500,000 in less than a year,” Gillman says on her campaign page. “We demanded that Gov. Walz reopen our schools and athletic programs in fall of 2020. We succeeded! I understand the passion and energy it takes to get things done.”
The first-year lawmaker rode the wave of recognition to a seat in the Legislature, winning over 70% of the vote in her central district about 40 miles south of St. Cloud.
The nonprofit, however, has never filed IRS tax forms — known as 990s — and other required financial documents showing how it spent its donations. Let Them Play MN had its tax exempt status revoked by the IRS earlier this year for failing to file financial documents for three consecutive years.
The federal government requires all tax exempt, nonprofit organizations to annually submit 990s and other filings for transparency and accountability, as they detail how nonprofits pay their employees and use donations to fulfill their stated mission.
Without the documents, it’s unclear how Let Them Play MN spent its purported $500,000 in donations.
Sam Diehl, an attorney for Let Them Play MN, attributed the lack of filings to “a miscommunication.”
“After Gov. Walz’s executive orders restricting kids’ participation in sports were finally lifted, Let Them Play MN has been less active. During this period, a miscommunication led to a missed filing,” Diehl said. “This is being corrected administratively and we understand should be resolved in short order.”
That’s not accurate, however. The group has missed three years of filings, not just a single filing.
When the Reformer reached Gillman on the phone, she said she was in a poor cell phone service area and said she’d call back, but never did.
The Diehl statement came from a House GOP spokesman, who did not elaborate on why Let Them Play MN had not filed documents for three consecutive years.
Ryan Wilson, former GOP candidate for state auditor who was also an attorney for Let Them Play MN, declined to answer the Reformer’s questions, citing attorney-client privilege.
Without the tax documents, it’s impossible to know how Let Them Play MN spent the purported $500,000, but the money may have gone to pay for attorney fees in the two federal lawsuits.
In December 2020, Let Them Play MN sued Walz and other state officials in U.S. District Court, challenging a temporary statewide ban on youth sports to mitigate COVID-19, which Walz issued the month prior.
Let Them Play MN attempted to hold a protest about the order at the State Capitol, but officials denied the group’s request. The nonprofit sued, saying their members’ First Amendment rights were violated.
A judge ruled against Let Them Play MN, stating the government had legitimate reasons for the protest denial — among them reducing COVID-19 spread within the group itself. The nonprofit appealed, but the appellate judge dismissed the case. Let Them Play MN filed to voluntarily dismiss the lawsuit, according to court records.
But three days after they filed the voluntary dismissal, Let Them Play MN filed a more expansive lawsuit in federal court asserting that Minnesota’s youth sports ban violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, while the state’s masking and quarantine requirements for youth sports both violated due process rights.
In August 2021, a federal judge dismissed the second lawsuit because the Minnesota Legislature passed a law revoking Walz’s emergency powers. The judge said the Legislature and other state officials had done what the nonprofit was seeking, so he dismissed the suit.
Gillman, a mother of five, has said in media reports that she ran for office because of the organizing she did with Let Them Play MN. Though judges ruled against the nonprofit in both of the lawsuits, Gillman told Alpha News that the lawsuits were successful because they were able to get discovery and acquire state data about the presence of COVID-19 in Minnesota.
“We kept the politics out of it even though the governor was playing politics with our kids,” Gillman told Alpha News. “We figured out ways that we could work together and kept the kids as the common goal, and that’s what I’m choosing to do too when I go down to work at the Capitol.”