Fundraising efforts on a website dedicated to help Matthew David Stewart, who is accused of killing an officer and wounding five others in January, were stopped after his family learned they may be violating state law.
Stewart’s father, Michael Stewart, told The Salt Lake Tribune on Saturday he was surprised to receive a letter on Thursday from the Utah Division of Consumer Protection saying the family had to register for a permit with the state as a charity under the Charitable Solicitations Act. He said he didn’t know the family had been doing anything wrong.
"We don’t want to break the law," Michael Stewart said, so the family took down the donation feature on their website — www.helpmatthewstewart.org — and submitted an application for a permit on Friday, which cost him $100. He will also have to inform contributors their donations will not be tax-deductible.
Family members previously planned to hold a yard sale and another was going to do photography to raise money for Matthew Stewart, but now Michael Stewart says he doesn’t know what the family can do without unknowingly violating some law.
"Does my sister need a permit for a garage sale to sell her junk to help my son?" he asked. "We’d like people to see outrage at the way things are being done here in Utah; it is not right. They are attacking us every way they can."
Division director Traci Gundersen said consumer protection staffers became aware of the family trying to raise money for Stewart’s legal defense fund and a couple of residents also called to ask if the family was registered with the state. They were not, so the department took action by sending the Stewarts a form letter dated Feb. 17 stating, "It is our understanding that your organization may be subject to the registration requirements of the Charitable Solicitations Act."
The law requires a permit before soliciting, requesting, promoting advertising or sponsoring a contribution in Utah for a charitable purpose. Many groups, including religious organizations, schools, political parties and volunteer fire departments, are exempt.
"Our standard operation procedure is when we become aware of solicitations being made we send out a notice," Gundersen said.
The purpose of the regulation is to protect the public "because fraud is rampant," Gundersen said, adding that some organizations don’t show where the funds are going, and a permit will reveal that and prevent fraud.
Stewart’s father said the website was set up by a nephew to help Stewart, 37, who faces the possibility of the death penalty if convicted of capital murder.
Currently, the www.helpmatthewstewart.org website states, "Donations have been temporarily disabled on the site. We are working with the State of Utah to allow us to reinstate this functionality."
Michael Stewart said a decision may not be made on his permit application for up to 20 days, so until then, the family will wait for their application to process.
Michael Stewart said he feels like he was unfairly targeted and his family is "under a microscope right now." He wonders if those individuals or organizations that held fundraisers for the slain and wounded officers were treated the same way and sent a form by the state to file as a charity.
Some organizations raised money to replace the Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force protective gear damaged in the deadly raid, others set up donation funds at banks and advertised to help the families of the officers.
Gundersen said she was aware of the letter sent to the Stewart family but could not confirm if any other letters to register as a charity had been sent out to family, friends or organizations asking for donations to help the fallen or wounded officers. Forms are sent out when the department learns someone may be violating the Charitable Solicitations Act, she said.
"We decide when it comes to our attention," Gundersen said, adding if she was aware these other groups or organizations weren’t registered, they also would have been sent a letter. "Everyone gets treated the same."
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