Guest post by Danielle Truszkovsky.
BEFORE WRITING THIS column, I sat and stared at my computer screen for what seemed like ages trying to figure out a way to make the topic of IRS regulations seem a bit more interesting.
Let’s face it, most people just don’t want to read about a subject as dry as tax law. Unfortunately, one of the only ways to detect questionable practices by organizations like the National Organization for Marriage is to first acquire the group’s tax return, research it in detail, and make public the findings. Not surprisingly, NOM’s initial return generated more questions than answers.
Obtaining the return has been an ongoing process spanning many months. On March 25, 2009, the group Californians Against Hate sent a certified request to NOM at their headquarters (20 Nassau St., Suite 242, Princeton, N.J.) for a copy of their 2007 tax return (Form 990). Under IRS regulations, NOM was required to release this information to the group within 30 days or face penalties of $20 per day. As of this week, NOM had not turned over their return to Californians Against Hate.
(After the break: Danielle sits down with NOM’s Executive Director, Brian Brown.)Back in April, I personally visited the NOM headquarters in Princeton to request a copy of the 990. Although I visited suite 242 numerous times during normal office hours, no one ever answered the door at the tiny, one-room space. It was surprising that a supposed “national” organization that donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in elections around the country and ran multi-million dollar media campaigns did not have even one person at their tiny office to manage this huge effort. If the national headquarters is essentially empty, then who is doing the work and where is all of the money coming from?
I made another attempt in May to reach someone at the NOM Princeton office to no avail – the only reason the group’s 2007 return is currently available to the public is because the IRS released a copy at the end of August.
After reviewing the 2007 return, there were several questions I had, so once again I decided to visit NOM, this time at their new office at 1100 H St., N.W., Suite 700 in Washington, D.C. As in Princeton, this office also is shared space. In fact, NOM’s name doesn’t appear at all on the list of tenants or even on the door. Unlike in Princeton, when I knocked on suite 700 someone actually answered. I was greeted by NOM Executive Director, Brian Brown.
WHAT INTERESTED ME most was the fact that the 2007 filing that I possessed was an amended return stamped as received by the IRS on June 11, 2009 – more than a year after the initial 990 should have been filed. Would Brown be willing to release the original filing?
Brown: “No. There’s no sense in releasing an original return because this is now the return.”
Me: “But, if it’s dramatically different than the original …”
Brown: “Well, you may be interested in knowing what it is, but we’re not releasing it.”
Me: “OK. Is it dramatically different than the original return?”
Brown: “No, I know that for example there were changes in addresses … We changed addresses, I know there were also changes to some … some vendors I think had been incorrectly put in as independent contractors when they should not have been put in as independent contractors. There were errors like that that are … that are relatively common and we corrected them and we gave them back to the IRS and that’s why the return is amended but we’re not going to be releasing the original return.”
Me: “Is there any reason why you went back over [the return] a year later?”
Brown: “We constantly are checking through them and making sure there … there aren’t any errors.”
Upon further inspection, Brown revealed that the 990 I possessed was not the final return, there was another amendment. So what was changed on this newest form, which remains unavailable? Apparently, the itemization of highest paid independent contractors is deleted because they were the aforementioned miscategorized vendors. This section included a $166,000 payment to Common Sense America for consulting services. Not surprisingly, Common Sense America is one of the groups that is listed as sharing office space with NOM in Princeton. Brown admitted that he was “president and volunteer” for the organization, but denied that NOM was funneling money to its board members. The return also listed the NOM salary for Brown as $57,292.
AS IF THE NOM tax filings weren’t confusing enough, Brian indicated that there were actually a total of three amendments to the 2007 return. If this information is correct, it brings the total of NOM filings for the tax year June-December 2007 up to a whopping four returns – one initial and three amended. According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, “less than one percent of returns received by the IRS are amended at a later date.”
And how many returns are amended three times? Unfortunately, it is so rare that a foundation amends its return three times that neither the IRS nor NCCS provide these statistics. More importantly, why would an organization need to amend its filing so many times unless it was either purposefully attempting to conceal or revise potentially damaging information or numerous egregious errors? Either way, this raises the questions: Where is the oversight and why aren’t there more compelling regulations for charitable organizations to make their records transparent and available to the public?
NOM is an organization with a mission to pass discriminatory legislation in all states that propose that same-sex couples have the same civil rights as opposite-sex couples. Currently NOM is under an active investigation by California to determine if the group was set up by the Mormon Church to pass Proposition 8. Nearly 75 percent of the money used to help pass Prop 8 in California came from Mormon donors – mostly from outside of the state.
NOM has been accused of money laundering in Maine and the state’s Commission on Governmental Ethics & Election Practices is considering an investigation into NOM to see if it has violated Maine’s campaign finance laws by purposefully attempting to conceal donor names. Currently, 99 percent of the money being used in Maine to support anti-gay legislation has come from NOM and three major religious contributors: James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, the Knights of Columbus and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland. The Iowa Ethics & Campaign Disclosure Board also is questioning NOM’s practices for attempting to conceal out-of-state donors in violation of the state’s campaign finance laws.
NOM also is now working in D.C., New Jersey, New York, Vermont, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. Although individual states are doing their part in oversight, they are limited by their boundaries and resources and, unfortunately, the anti-gay legislation that NOM backs is extremely time sensitive. Meanwhile, the group is allowed to operate virtually unmonitored by the federal government. NOM’s agenda involves an important public issue – swaying elections state by state – and its practices have come under fire in every state in which they operate.
Since the group seems to be pioneering the way to circumventing the democratic process, one can only wonder when the federal government will take notice.
Originally published as “Follow The Money.” Republished with permission.