November 30, 2013

State order to halt to Red Barn benefits raises flap

Augusta restaurant brought in $635,000 for charitable causes.

By Betty Adams badams@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — “Who wants to kill Santa Claus this year?”

click image to enlarge

Barn fan: Owner Laura Benedict, right, hugs Carol Foreman, of South China, after Foreman brought a sign supporting The Red Barn on Saturday in the restaurant’s main room in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

click image to enlarge

Legacy of Charity: Sitting beside several framed thank-you notes from organizations that benefited from Red Barn fundraisers, owner Laura Benedict talks to a reporter Saturday at The Red Barn in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

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That was Peter Benedict’s response when the state ordered the Red Barn restaurant to stop raising money for charities.

Benedict is general manager of the restaurant owned by his sister, Laura Benedict. They and others have raised more than $635,000 for various charitable causes over the past three years.

The letter from the Office of the Maine Attorney General arrived on Wednesday, a Facebook posting about it went out later Friday and by Saturday afternoon, Attorney General Janet Mills had stopped at the restaurant to apologize in person.

“I certainly approve of what Laura’s doing and friends helping friends,” Mills said. “I just think what she is doing is terrific.

Mills said her office might issue guidance for businesses such as the Red Barn about how to comply with the law easily.

However, receiving the letter made for a rough Thanksgiving for Laura Benedict.

“I didn’t want to open it,” Laura Benedict said Saturday. “The words ‘cease and desist’ just came right out at me.”

She was already stressed about the free Thanksgiving feast being put on by the Red Barn in conjunction with other organizations. In all, that effort fed more than 500 people on Thursday and an extra 100 on Friday.

The order from the Office of the Attorney General effectively quashed the Benedict family’s fundraising, which has consisted of more than 100 benefits over the past few years. “All the money goes to charity,” he said. In fact, Laura Benedict and her family were lauded by the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce this year for having raised money for local nonprofits and other needy groups and individuals since November 2010. That’s when the Red Barn started a series of benefit dinners. Along with its Riverside Drive restaurant, the family opened a drive-thru location in Winslow two years ago.

The letter seemed like a slap in the face.

“I took it like it was a freight train just ran over me,” Laura Benedict said. “It ruined my absolute day.”

The Benedicts delayed making their problem public until the dinners were served, and they put up a Facebook posting late Friday about their dilemma:

“We have some terrible news!! We will not be able to participate in any fundraising until we get this resolved.”

The letter from Assistant Attorney General Michael Miller says, “The Charitable Solicitions Act requires most entities that are soliciting contributions from the public for a charitable purpose to be licensed with the Office of Professional and Occupational Regulation. ... This office directs you to cease engaging in solicitation as a charitable organization until you become licensed as a charitable organization or show why you do not need to be licensed as such.”

Miller also directs the Red Barn owners to a government website wwww.maine.gov/pfr/professionallicensing/professions/charitable.

“The IRONY is we could apply for an exemption if 100 percent of the proceeds were donated from our fundraisers right at that time, but we pay sales tax on the donations so we don’t break the law governing taxes!!! Also, we don’t solicit funds as a ‘Charitable Organization,’ we are a for-profit restaurant (and have never lied about that) and wish to help our community!!!”

The posting went up Friday. “We would have shared this news yesterday, but we were a bit nervous about feeding almost 500 people for Thanksgiving!! We do have a plan, and it is a good one. We are upset we can’t continue to help cancer survivors raise money for treatment or help schools raise money for programs that have been cut from budgets, but until we are in compliance, we must CEASE AND DESIST giving back to our community!!”

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