Creator of imitation Woodbury Thrives website violated campaign practices law, judges rule
Update 6:50 p.m.: This story was updated to include additional details and a response from 4MN, Inc.'s representation.
ST. PAUL — A three-judge panel at the state Office of Administrative Hearings ruled Dec. 6 that the creator of a website that caused confusion around political endorsements in Woodbury knowingly violated campaign practices law.
The judges found that registered nonprofit 4MN, Inc. sought to imitate the organization Woodbury Thrives, a program of the nonprofit Woodbury Community Foundation, with a website implying the organization had endorsed candidates for mayor, Woodbury City Council and local legislative races in the recent election.
4MN was ordered to pay $2,400 in civil penalties.
“The OAH decision vindicates our position,” Lori Nelson, the foundation’s executive director, said in a news release. “The alternative Woodbury Thrives website caused confusion among local voters and negatively impacted the November 2018 election.”
Nelson said in October that the website, woodbury.thrives.mn, which included a large header reading “Woodbury Thrives” and a logo closely resembling the foundation program's logo, had led some members of the community to believe the foundation was endorsing candidates. This led the foundation to file a complaint with the state.
Organizations registered as 501(c)(3) nonprofits risk losing tax-exempt status if they endorse or disparage political candidates.
4MN President Tyler Halva, a Woodbury resident, registered “Woodbury Thrives” as an assumed name with the Secretary of State’s Office on March 1. Court documents say he registered the names “Woodbury Cares” and “Minnesota GOP” on the same day.
Halva argued that he had a right to use "Woodbury Thrives" to endorse candidates because he had registered it as an assumed name. He added a disclaimer to the website, stating that it was not associated with the foundation, after 4MN received a cease and desist letter from the foundation's representation.
Halva testified that he knew as early as 2017 that there was a Woodbury organization that used the name but believed it was "a marketing or branding initiative" of the city.
"4MN believes that this matter could have been avoided had the Foundation taken such legal steps related to operating under an assumed name — doing so would have put 4MN on notice of the existence of the foundation’s Woodbury Thrives program, and the community would have clear notice that the 'Woodbury Thrives' program and the Woodbury Community Foundation are one and the same," said Kenneth Kunkle, a trademark and copyright lawyer representing 4MN.
Halva testified that he registered the name for political purposes. He said he was unaware of the close similarity between the two logos and that he designed the logo on the 4MN website himself, inspired by the Saint Paul Winter Carnival logo.
The current Woodbury Thrives logo was first introduced on its Facebook page on March 17, according to court documents.
“We pursued this case because we heard from confused community members," Woodbury Thrives Program Director Simi Patnaik said in a news release. "We are happy to have this cleared up.”