Friday, September 24, 2021

Supreme Court of Hawaii upholds Subpoenas to Environmental Advocacy Nonprofit

Hawaii Supreme Court: "KAHEA's advocacy could be totally legal and still jeopardize its eligibility for 501(c)(3) status" under the public policy exception.

Interesting, but very problematic, decision out of the Supreme Court of Hawai'i largely upholding the Attorney General's subpoena of bank records from a charity. image from kahea.org KAHEA: The Hawai‘ian Environmental Alliance, "advocate[s] for the proper stewardship of our resources and for social responsibility by promoting cultural understanding and environmental justice." KAHEA created the "Aloha ‘Āina Support Fund" which “prioritizes frontline logistical support for non-violent direct actions taken to protect Mauna Kea from further industrial development.” After around 30 protesters apparently affiliated in some way with KAHEA (the court doesn't discuss except to emphasize that the Fund paid for bail for some of the protesters) blocked a road to a construction site, the Attorney General issued sweeping subpoenas of bank records from the organization. The Court suggests that AG's true motive seems to be dislike for KAHEA's advocacy agenda. KAHEA was able to get the scope of the subpoenas narrowed at both the trial level and in the Supreme Court on the grounds that they were unreasonable, but Court upheld the demand for information about how expenditures made by the Aloha ‘Āina Support Fund.

The Supreme Court' rejects KAHEA's claim that the subpoena was improperly retaliatory for KAHEA's advocacy activities. The Court seems to agree that a subpoena is an adverse action that triggers First Amendment:

KAHEA's opposition to development on Mauna Kea falls squarely within the heartland of the First Amendment's protections. We also agree with KAHEA that the prospect of an administrative subpoena seeking extensive banking records is an adverse action that would chill a person of ordinary firmness from exercising First Amendment rights.
But, the Court concludes, the AG's subpoena is okay because "The State AG's investigation is premised on the notion that KAHEA's financial support for direct action opposing development on Mauna Kea may disqualify it from 501(c)(3) status."
The Court explains:

The State AG's investigation is premised on the notion that KAHEA's financial support for direct action opposing development on Mauna Kea may disqualify it from 501(c)(3) status. Nothing about this premise contradicts or runs counter to First Amendment principles.The federal tax exemption for charitable organizations is effectively a taxpayer-funded subsidy for organizations that serve some public benefit. As the Supreme Court explained in Bob Jones Univ. v. United States, 461 U.S. 574 (1983):

When the Government grants exemptions or allows deductions all taxpayers are affected; the very fact of the exemption or deduction for the donor means that other taxpayers can be said to be indirect and vicarious “donors.” Charitable exemptions are justified on the basis that the exempt entity confers a public benefit ....

Id. at 591. One corollary of the “public benefit principle” is that to qualify for the exemption, an organization must have a charitable purpose “ ‘consistent with local laws and public policy’.”

The State AG's characterization of its investigation as probing whether KAHEA has “an illegal purpose” is thus misleading because its use of the word “illegal” suggests as a necessary premise some unlawfulness on KAHEA's part. To the contrary, KAHEA's advocacy could be totally legal and still jeopardize its eligibility for 501(c)(3) status.

The State AG has represented that it is not investigating whether KAHEA has done anything illegal; it is investigating whether KAHEA serves a public benefit such that all U.S. taxpayers – a group that may include supporters of development on Mauna Kea – ought to be KAHEA's “vicarious donors.” KAHEA could have an “illegal purpose” without having done anything illegal. As such – and given IRS Revenue Ruling 75-384 and the record here – the notion that KAHEA's support for “direct action” on Mauna Kea might impact its eligibility for § 501(c)(3) status is not so unsound that it betrays retaliatory animus.

 
 
The Court's reasoning makes quite a few missteps, but I want to focus on its view that KAHEA has federal tax exempt status, "all U.S. taxpayers – a group that may include supporters of development on Mauna Kea – [are] KAHEA's 'vicarious donors,'" which in turn gives the state AG latitude to investigate whether its advocacy is actually serving the public. (I'm setting aside the question whether federal tax-exemption is a valid basis for the state to exercise investigative authority.)
 
This is potentially very dangerous. The Court comes close to suggesting that the AG is empowered to assess whether KAHEA's advocacy goals serve the public benefit (which, as the Court notes, is likely the true motive behind the case). While this type of viewpoint discrimination is allowed in other nations (denying Greenpeace charitable status because its advocacy for the environment, if successful, would harm industry and thus not benefit the public), that isn't the American approach. I'll give the Court the benefit of the doubt and assume that isn't what it is saying. A more reasonable, but still problematic, interpretation of the Court's reasoning is that the AG is allowed to question the organization's methods of advocacy: the support of Direct Action. (There was no claim that KAHEA ran afoul of federal rules on lobbying and political activities). This too is flawed.
 
While an organization that engages in or plans significant illegal activities may lose its exempt status, the state AG assured the court that "it is not investigating whether KAHEA has done anything illegal." The Court concludes that "KAHEA's advocacy could be totally legal and still jeopardize its eligibility for 501(c)(3) status." How? The Court primarily relies on an IRS revenue ruling from 1975 that denied tax-exemption to an Antiwar Protest Organization "whose primary activity is the sponsoring of antiwar protest demonstrations in which demonstrators are urged to commit violations of local ordinances and breaches of public order." That is nothing like KAHEA. Unlike the organization denied exempt status, KAHEA's primary purpose is not to sponsor or organize criminal acts. Even the AG conceded that KAHEA wasn't responsible for any violations of criminal law. Instead, the connection between the KAHEA and the protesters seems to rest on the Fund's payment for attorney representation and bail for people charged with a crime -- hardly a basis to call into question KAHEA's tax-exempt status, the supposed rationale for the subpoena. The debate over the scope of the public policy exception remains active, and the Hawaii Supreme Court's muddled reasoning doesn't do much to advance the ball.
 
On the bright side, the Hawai'i Supreme Court seems willing to scrutinize AG subpoenas of nonprofits when First Amendment values are at stake. But the decision rests on shaky legal grounds, and could be read to give Attorneys General problematic license to use the subpoena power to chill nonprofits' organizing and protest efforts.
 
@JosephWMead
jeopardize

In re KAHEA, No. SCAP-20-0000110, 2021 WL 4271347, at *9 (Haw. Sept. 21, 2021)

September 24, 2021 in State – Judicial | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 3, 2021

University of Louisville Settles Legal Dispute with ex-President for $800,000 Paid by Insurance Company

Download (2)The Associated Press and The Courier Journal report that afters years of litigation and spending more than $6 million in taxpayer funds, the University of Louisville and its affiliated foundation have agreed to resolve their legal dispute with ex-President James Ramsey for $800,000 paid under the foundation's directors and officers insurance policy. President Ramsey served for 14 years, but his tenure ended in turmoil after allegations arose relating to improper spending by both the university and the foundation, including allegedly excessive compensation paid to Ramsey and his then chief of staff. The original complaint filed by the University and the foundation can be found here.

An earlier news report stated that the IRS was auditing the foundation, presumably based at least in part on the public allegations of wrongdoing. The most recent report states that the foundation has released its tax claims against Ramsey as part of the settlement. But it is unclear to me how that agreement could prevent the IRS from imposing self-dealing or other excise tax penalties, if it chooses to do so.

Lloyd Mayer

September 3, 2021 in Federal – Executive, In the News, State – Judicial | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 27, 2021

A Call for Statistical Information about Nondiscrimination & Private Schools: Numbers Don’t Lie

In a 2000 EO CPE article entitled Private Schools, the Service stated, “private schools have long been of concern to the Service.”  As stated therein, the Service’s determinations of whether private schools qualify for exemption under IRC 501(c)(3) were addressed in many of the CPE texts from 1979 through 1989.   In Private Schools, the Service provided an important historical review, a discussion on the requirements of Rev. Proc. 75-50, 1975-2 C.B. 587, and a summary of the various filing requirements that apply to private schools.

In recounting the history of this problem, the CPE article notes the background and current status of an injunction (still in effect) that requires the Service to deny tax-exempt status to racially discriminatory private schools in Mississippi.  The injunction resulted from a 1970 class action filed to prevent the Service from recognizing the tax-exempt status of or allowing IRC 170 deductions to private schools that engage in racial discrimination against black students.   See Green v. Connally, 330 F. Supp. 1150 (D. D.C. 1971), aff'd sub nom., Coit v. Green, 404 U.S. 997 (1971).  It is interesting to examine the injunction in place for Mississippi in considering how to handle the systemic problem of racially discriminatory private schools today.  The CPE article states the following regarding Mississippi private schools:

            These so-called “Paragraph (1) Schools” must demonstrate that they have adopted and published a nondiscriminatory                     policy. They must also provide certain statistical and other information to the Service to establish that they are operated             in a nondiscriminatory manner. Most importantly, they must overcome an inference of discrimination against blacks.

As of now, the injunction from Green only applies to Mississippi schools.  Clearly, Green provides a model for how to implement the restriction against private schools’ engaging in racial discrimination.  The focus on “statistical” information is really the key.  As we all know, numbers do not lie.  If private schools were free and open to all, the student body at private schools would not be 90% or more white.  The same is true regarding the bleak number of black teachers at private schools.  The injunction from Green could cure some of the prevalent and pervasive problems of racial discrimination in private schools throughout the South.

 

Khrista McCarden

Hoffman Fuller Associate Professor of Tax Law

Tulane Law School

June 27, 2021 in Current Affairs, Federal – Executive, Federal – Judicial, State – Judicial | Permalink

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Nonprofits React to Conviction of Derek Chauvin

Yesterday's NonProfitTimes reported that the rapid conviction by a criminal court jury in Minneapolis of former police officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd last year brought swift reactions from leaders across the nonprofit sector. According to the Times, the leaders not only backed the verdict, but many also voiced support for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 pending in Congress which would put federal law behind blocking tactics such as no-knock warrants and chokeholds when detaining a suspect.

Among the nonprofit leaders issuing statements in favor of the verdict were: Jody Levison-Johnson, president and CEO of The Alliance for Strong Families and Communities/Council on Accreditation; Tim Delaney, President & CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits; Daniel J. Cardinali, president and CEO, The Independent Sector; Derrick Johnson, President & CEO, The NAACP; Jason Williamson, deputy director of the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project; and Matthew Melmed, Executive Director, ZERO TO THREE.

Among the many statements issued and comments made, this paragraph from the statement issued by The Alliance for Strong Families is noteworthy:

This verdict reflects the fact that our national reckoning on systemic racism in America is long overdue. Watching the Derek Chauvin trial unfold has been difficult for all Americans, and for people of color who have lost another father, mother, son, or daughter at the hands of law enforcement, this tragedy, played out daily on our television screens, has been especially hard to bear. Systemic racism and implicit bias are infused across too many of the systems that should support people, resulting too often in harm to those they are meant to protect. While we recognize the work that has taken place thus far to expand equity, diversity and inclusion, we must continue to build on it, and acknowledge that the road ahead of us is long, and that true systemic change is needed and required. We hope this verdict puts us on a path toward bringing about that needed change. …”

This hope lives deep within my heart. 

Vaughn E. James, Professor of Law, Texas Tech University

April 22, 2021 in Current Affairs, Federal – Legislative, In the News, State – Judicial | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Michigan courts seek to clarify the sometimes blurry line between for-profit and nonprofit

Distinguishing between the activities of for-profit and nonprofit organizations that have business dealings with one another can be challenging for tax authorities when determining tax liability. The Michigan court of appeals recently fought its way through such a thicket in determining whether Dexter Wellness Center, a nonprofit organization in the state, fell afoul of a state statute imposing a lessee-user tax on nonprofits that lease their premises to for-profit organizations. The City of Dexter, where the DWC is located, sought to tax the organization under this law on the grounds that a for-profit management company was given control of the Wellness Center’s operations, thereby nullifying the charitable purpose behind the Center. The state’s court of appeals has affirmed the decision by the Michigan tax tribunal that, in truth, the for-profit’s role is more akin to that of a paid agent: since the nonprofit entity retained ultimate control over what went on at the wellness center, it retains its tax-exempt status.

For more information, see the Law360 article written on the matter by Asha Glover at https://www.law360.com/tax-authority/articles/1361863

David Brennen, Professor of Law at the University of Kentucky

March 11, 2021 in State – Judicial | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Election 2020: Post-Election Challenges and What the Election May Mean for Nonprofits

DownloadWith the fading but still heated allegations about the 2020 election came at least two legal issues for Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3) charities seeking to be involved in the post-election litigation. One issue is to what extent charities can be involved in that litigation and related public debate without engaging in political campaign intervention. The Bolder Advocacy Program at the Aliiance for Justice provides helpful guidance on this point. But the other, perhaps more surprising issue, was whether 501(c)(3) Project Veritas may have put its tax-exempt status at risk during its attempts to find evidence of voter fraud. Fellow blogger Sam Brunson unpacks this issue over at The Surly Subgroup, concluding that if Project Veritas broke the law by helping and encouraging perjury by a Pennsylvania postal worker it may indeed have placed its tax-exempt status at risk.

But the bigger issue for most nonprofits is how the election may directly affect them or the positions they support. Before the election, the Chronicle of Philanthropy noted that the announced Biden tax plan "would steer aid to the poor but could deter some wealthy donors from giving." And in the wake of the election, the Chronicle of Philanthropy has collected a roundup of stories about how it is likely to affect philanthropy more generally. The consensus appears to be that incremental change is likely, with charities supporting more progressive policies cautiously optimistic but expecting a lot of hard work ahead.

UPDATE: The Chronicle of Philanthropy also just published an article with this headline: "Biden Transition Team Signals Big Role for Nonprofits Throughout Government." While that article is behind a paywall, the NonProfit Times has a list of over 40 nonprofit leaders that are among the 257 members of Biden's Agency Review Teams.

Lloyd Mayer

November 17, 2020 in Federal – Judicial, In the News, State – Judicial | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 4, 2020

On This Date in Nonprofit Law History: Court Prohibits Hershey School from Selling Hershey Stock

image from bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.comOn September 4, 2002, the Pennsylvania Orphan's Court issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting the sale of some of the investments of Hershey School. Hershey School was founded 110 years ago by Milton and Catherine Hershey of Hershey Chocolate fame with a $60 Million trust. The endowment currently stands in excess of $12 Billion. The school provides free education and room and board to children of low-income families; the average family income of children enrolled at the school is $21,000.

As of 2002, the vast majority of the School's endowment was invested in stock in Hershey foods. In fact, the school controlled 77% of the food conglomerate's shares. In the interest of diversifying the investment, the board of directors of the School sought to sell a large portion of its stock in the Hershey Foods. The Pennsylvania Attorney General filed suit, seeking to stop the sale, pointing to "adverse economic and social impact against the public interest if a sale of Hershey Foods Corporation takes place, particularly in its effect on employees of the Corporation and the community of Derry Township."

On September 4, 2002, a judge enjoined the sale. The judge rejected the School's interest in diversifying its assets, concluding that the School did not have any legal obligation to diversify assets. The judge further rejected the School's argument that delay of the sale would cause significant harm. Finding that the Attorney General's asserted harm was significant, and the School did not justify a need for the sale, the sale should not take place while litigation proceeded.

The School filed an appeal, but in vain. The Commonwealth Court left the injunction in place, reasoning:

The Trust argues that the Attorney General has no authority to prevent an otherwise lawful disposition of trust assets under the guise of protecting the public. This underlying legal issue, while important, is not the focus of our review. Rather we must review the record to determine whether the trial court had the "apparently reasonable grounds" required to support its decision. A review of the record and Judge Morgan's opinion does not immediately convince us no apparently reasonable grounds exist to support the order as one that restores the status quo, prevents the immediate and irreparable harm that would result if the Trust proceeded with a sale of its controlling interest in Hershey Foods before the issues raised by the parties are resolved, and prevents a greater injury than what might result if the injunction were denied.

The sale did not go through, and the trustees of the School were removed. Evelyn Brody’s article covers this case and its implications in depth. As Professor Brody notes, local leaders were outraged with the sale, but thrilled with the Attorney General’s intervention. Among the best quotes from community leaders:

"I don't see why a town should be ruined so underprivileged kids can be privileged."

"Our cash cow is safe; we're feeling really great… But there's still a lot of interest in getting rid of the Hershey trustees for ever trying this in the first place."

-Joe Mead

 

September 4, 2020 in State – Judicial | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

NRA comes under fire from New York attorney general

On August 6th, New York attorney general Letitia James filed suit to dissolve the National Rifle Association, a powerful nonprofit quartered in New York. A 501(c)(4) tax-exempt organization, the NRA has stood for the protection of American second amendment rights since 1871: today, its leadership stands accused of seriously abusing organizational coffers and fraudulently concealing their actions. Attorney general James alleges in her complaint that the NRA at large instituted a culture of backroom dealing and illegal behavior which has resulted in the complete waste of millions of dollars in assets. As a tax-exempt charitable corporation, the NRA is required to use its resources to serve its members’ interests and advance its mission. James further asserts that the NRA’s internal policing mechanisms and boards routinely failed to put a stop to this illegal behavior, which is part of the reason why the attorney general now calls for complete dissolution of the organization.

            In addition to attacking the organization at large, attorney general James lists in her complaint four individuals in the NRA’s leadership: the organization’s executive vice president, former treasurer/CFO, former chief of staff, and general counsel. James’ complaint includes an impressive amount of evidence indicating that these men channeled colossal sums of NRA resources into lavishing benefits on themselves and those closest to them. If successful, the attorney general’s suit will serve as a powerful reminder that no nonprofit organization, no matter how venerable its history may be, is above the fiduciary duties it owes to its members or its reporting duties to federal and state governments alike.

 

By David A. Brennen, Professor of Law at the University of Kentucky

 

For the attorney general's press release see:

https://ag.ny.gov/press-release/2020/attorney-general-james-files-lawsuit-dissolve-nra

 

August 25, 2020 in Current Affairs, Federal – Judicial, In the News, State – Judicial | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 17, 2020

NY AG seeking Dissolution: A bridge too far?

On August 6, 2020, the New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a complaint against the NRA seeking restitution from officers and directors, removal of officers and directors, and the dissolution of the nonprofit organized in New York in 1871. While it looks like few think the suit for restitution and removal wrong, many are criticizing the AG for bringing the dissolution action.

I think she was right to bring the dissolution action, but I doubt a court will grant it, and I think that is all fine.

The AP provided a good rundown of the case and immediate reactions.

Last year when leadership in the NRA was in disarray and widely predicting that the misuse of the nonprofit by its officers and directors could lead to its dissolution, I wrote that this was highly unlikely:

"At the same time, I think it’s possible that the New York authorities investigating the group might remove officers and members of its 76-member board of directors. There is even a slight possibility, as NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre warned in a fundraising letter, that New York authorities could cause the NRA “to shut down forever.” But I doubt it."

Ruth Marcus has questioned the NY AG.

The NRA has filed a lawsuit challenging the AG action on many grounds including first amendment grounds, defamation, and procedural grounds trying to nullify the dissolution action. Asher Stoker has a nice tweet thread explaining why the procedural effort was unlikely to work. The NY AG amended its complaint to comply with the strict requirements of filing a dissolution.

The AG lays out the basis for dissolution on page 138-39 of the complaint:

  1. Under N-PCL § 112(a)(5), the Attorney General is authorized to maintain an action or special proceeding to dissolve a corporation under Article 11 (Judicial dissolution).
  2. Under N-PCL § 1101(a)(2), the Attorney General may bring an action seeking the dissolution of a charitable corporation when “the corporation has exceeded the authority conferred upon it by law, or … has carried on, conducted or transacted its business in a persistently fraudulent or illegal manner, or by the abuse of its powers contrary to public policy of the state has become liable to be dissolved.”

Here is the N-PCL

Many question the AG's partiality because she is a Democrat and so vocally stated she would investigate the NRA during her campaign, and called it a terrorist organization.

I encourage everyone to read the complaint. When you read the allegations of a long running, substantial, and extensive fraud on the members of the NRA, I am left wondering when the AG may use the dissolution provision that is in New York nonprofit law, if she does not use it now. 

Importantly, and I think interestingly for the process, the New York statute states that the AG “may” bring a dissolution action under these circumstances. But, the judge then still has to decide. 

N-CPL 1109 tells the judge what to take into consideration. It says:

(a) In an action or special proceeding under this article if, in the court's discretion, it shall appear that the corporation should be dissolved, it shall make a judgment or final order dissolving the corporation.

(b) In making its decision, the court shall take into consideration the following criteria:

(1) In an action brought by the attorney-general, the interest of the public is of paramount importance.

(2) In a special proceeding brought by directors or members, the benefit to the members of a dissolution is of paramount importance.

(c) If the judgment or final order shall provide for a dissolution of the corporation, the court may, in its discretion, provide therein for the distribution of the property of the corporation to those entitled thereto according to their respective rights.  Any property of the corporation described in subparagraph one of paragraph (c) of section 1002-a (Carrying out the plan of dissolution and distribution of assets) shall be distributed in accordance with that section.

It seems to me that the appropriate way for this process to play out is for the AG to bring the dissolution action. She should present the evidence for that claim. It may be that the power structure associated with what we consider the NRA today is so impossibly entangled with the wrongdoers that it would be impossible for the NRA to be reformed to actually further the mission of the NRA. If that is the case, dissolution is the answer. I am just skeptical that this is the answer. 

Though I do not believe in the same ideological beliefs that the NRA seeks to further, I do believe a robust defense of the Second Amendment should be a part of American life. I think the large membership is entitled to an organization that honestly and fairly furthers that mission. I believe we are better off in a world where the folks that believe in that right have good representation. Because of that, I find it hard to believe it will be impossible to reform the entity with that substantial membership in mind. That said, I think it possible the AG could prove her case. I think she should be allowed the respect to bring that forward. I think we will be better for it, including especially those who are conservatives. AG James is insisting on a rule of law. We should all be grateful to her for that commitment.

I shared my general thoughts with BBC World Tonight on the day the complaint was filed. You can listen to those starting at about 27:45 in on this link.

Many have wondered whether the NRA can just move out of New York to avoid the problem. The NY AG has the direct answer by tweet. No.

It is also worth watching the DC AG complaint against the NRA Foundation. 

If you want a deep and rich understanding of the matter of the NRA I highly recommend the Gangster Capitalism podcast on the NRA.

By Philip Hackney

August 17, 2020 in Current Affairs, State – Executive, State – Judicial, State – Legislative | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 12, 2020

Updating Previous Posts: .ORG Domain Sale, Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence

Logo-2-1 Download (1)There have been new developments in two matters previously covered in this space, specifically the proposed sale of the .ORG domain - virtual home to most nonprofit organizations - to a private equity firm and the ongoing controversy regarding the compensation paid to the CEO of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

With respect to the .ORG domain sale, the California Attorney General issued a lengthy letter urging the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICAAN) to reject the sale by the Internet Society of the .ORG domain (technically, a "registry") to Ethos Capital, a private equity firm. In the wake of that letter and appeals from a number of prominent nonprofit organizations, including the Electronic Freedom Foundation and the National Council of Nonprofits, ICANN vetoed the $1.1 billion deal. Coverage: N.Y. Times, Reuters.

With respect to the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the Miami Herald reports that a state court judge ordered the dissolution of the nonprofit at the request of the Florida Attorney General and placed the organization's assets under the supervision of a bankruptcy expert. The dissolution came in the wake of the discovery that the nonprofit had paid its chief executive officer more than $7.5 million over three years as compensation. It is not clear whether the nonprofit's board knew about and approved the compensation, or simply allowed itself to remain ignorant of the financial arrangements with the CEO. State and federal investigations are continuing. The Tampa Bay Times also reports that the same receiver now has been given control by the courts over the assets of the separate foundation that existed to support the Coalition.

Lloyd Mayer

June 12, 2020 in In the News, State – Executive, State – Judicial | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 2, 2020

Brunson, God Is My Roommate?

Nypl.digitalcollections.510d47e2-8bc1-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.rHappy March! To start my week here at the Nonprofit Law Prof Blog, I'm going to do some shameless self-promotion. I recently posted God Is My Roommate? Tax Exemptions for Parsonages Yesterday, Today, and (if Constitutional) Tomorrow to SSRN. I'll copy the abstract below, but a little non-abstract information first:

I wrote this in response to the Seventh Circuit's decision in Gaylor v. Mnuchin. In that case, the court held that section 107(2), which allows "ministers of the gospel" to receive a tax-free housing allowance, did not violate the Establishment Clause. It based its ruling on two tests: the Lemon test and, in the alternative, what it called the "historical significance test." The second of these tests, it said, essentially provides that if something was accepted at the time of the Framers and has continuously been accepted since, it doesn't violate the Establishment Clause.

The big problem? Well, the income tax hasn't been around nearly that long. The court held that the property tax exemption for parsonages had no substantive difference (n.b.: the two differ substantially, both substantively and constitutionally), and instead looked at that. Or, rather, looked at a caricature of the history of property tax exemptions for parsonages.

Continue reading

March 2, 2020 in Publications – Articles, State – Judicial, State – Legislative | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Trump Ordered to Pay US$2 million for Misuse of Foundation - Where Can You find the Documents?

On November 7, New York Supreme Court Judge Saliann Scarpulla ordered President Trump to pay $2 million in resitution to charity for his breach of his fiduciary duties as an officer and director of the Trump Foundation. The link attached to ordered above is the Judge's actual order. Since this is written up a lot in other places, like here by David Fahrenthold who has been the best chronicler of the Foundation, I only provide resources here for digging deeper into the case.

To fully comprehend what has happened to the Trump Foundation, President Trump, and his children, you have to read more than the order. They all entered into a series of stipulations with the NY AG Letitia James. The stipulations spell out a series of significant admissions of wrongdoing made by President Trump and his three children who sat on the board. The press release issued by the NY AG does a nice job of summarizing all that has taken place. I recommend reading all three.

If interested in seeing all of the evidence held by the NY AG you can go to the NY Supreme Court and search in the case index for the index number of the case (451130/2018). That should take you here, which if it works would save you the time of searching the case index. More information can be found from CREW who did a FOIA search that yielded the Form 4720s and checks filed by the Foundation with the IRS.

I have written about the matter on The Conversation here. In that piece I try to grapple with whether there are any situations in history that place this occurrence in proper historical context. If you get a chance to look at that, and have thoughts about the choice, let me know what you think.

Philip Hackney

November 9, 2019 in Current Affairs, Federal – Executive, In the News, State – Executive, State – Judicial | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

How Not to Invest in For-Profit Businesses: Praying Pelican Ministries

EllisonPublic details are a bit scarce, but according to press reports a three-year investigation by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison has raised questions about a nonprofit's investment of nearly a $1 million in for-profit companies owned by the nonprofit's CEO. Praying Pelican Ministries started a for-profit coffee shop in 2013 in order to raise money, with the CEO as the sole shareholder of the business (even though the board had approved the investment subject to the nonprofit being a 49% owner). After investing nearly $800,000 in the business, the coffee shop was sold for $16,000, with the sales proceeds used to pay off the shop's creditors. During approximately the same time period, the nonprofit referred participants in its mission trip to a  travel agency owned by - you guessed it - the CEO. The nonprofit also paid nearly $140,000 to the agency in purported reimbursements, but a later audit revealed that in fact the agency was obligated to repay this amount to the nonprofit.

In the wake of the investigation and the AG's allegations that they had violated their fiduciary duties in numerous ways, the CEO and four board members resigned earlier this year. Earlier this month the AG filed in court a stipulation and proposed order (agreed to by the nonprofit and its new leadership), which if accepted by the court would require the nonprofit to revise its policies and leadership. The "Petition for Order Approving Assurance of Discontinuance" is available here. At least at this point, no criminal charges have been filed.

Coverage: Duluth News Tribune; Star Tribune. Hat Tip: Nonprofit Quarterly

Lloyd Mayer

September 25, 2019 in In the News, State – Executive, State – Judicial | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 29, 2019

Now With the Mueller Report Done, We Can Get to the Important Trump-Related Investigations

Trump FoundationAs the Washington Post details, the end of the Mueller investigation is far from the end of law enforcement actions relating to President Trump. Among those investigations are several tied to nonprofit organizations, specifically the continuing litigation in New York relating to the Trump Foundation and investigations into the President's inaugural committee.

Turning first to the inaugural committee, in late February the District of Columbia Attorney General's office subpoenaed the committee for documents relating to its finances according to several media reports (CNNNY Times; Politico; Wall Street Journal; Washington Post). This followed subpoenas on the same topic from the New Jersey Attorney General's Office and from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the South District of New York, both earlier that month. The latter subpoena identified a number of possible federal crimes under investigation, including conspiracy against the United States, mail and wire fraud, money laundering, and accepting contributions from foreign nations and straw donors. The DC and NJ subpoenas are more focused on nonprofit-related matters, such as possible private benefit and whether the committee complied with laws relating to soliciting contributions.

As for the Trump Foundation litigation in New York, Courthouse News Service reports that New York Attorney General Letitia James requested judgment against the Foundation, Donald J. Trump, Donald J. Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump, and Eric F. Trump for $2.8 million in restitution and $5.6 million in penalties, as well as injunctive relief. The filing, technically a Reply Memorandum of Law in Further Support of the Verified Petition, argues that the evidence provided by the Attorney General has not been challenged by the respondents or countered by any admissible evidence provided by them, and that it demonstrates breach of fiduciary duties, wasting of charitable assets, and improper use of the foundation for political purposes.  Hat tip: Nonprofit Quarterly.

Lloyd Mayer

March 29, 2019 in Federal – Executive, In the News, State – Executive, State – Judicial | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

California AG's Ongoing Litigation Alleging Overvaluation of Contributions

6a00d8341bfae553ef0224df2faab6200b-120wiI previously mentioned California Attorney General Xavier Becerra's cease and desist orders against three charities for allegedly overvaluing donated pharmaceuticals they received. Now Jim Ulvog, CPA at the Nonprofit Update blog has obtained the numerous and lengthy court filings in this case and begun reviewing them. So far he has posted some preliminary thoughts and also some details relating to discovery disputes. Apparently the three defendant charities have seriously lawyered up (ten attorneys named so far) and also hired impressive (and presumably expensive) expert witnesses. At last report (on December 4th), the case was in its sixth day of hearings out of fifteen scheduled days before an Administrative Law Judge. It will be interesting to see if it results in a public decision or instead a set of quiet settlements, with both sides claiming victory.

Lloyd Mayer

December 19, 2018 in State – Executive, State – Judicial | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Trump (Nonprofit) Trouble: Foundation to Dissolve and More

DownloadWhile paling in comparison to other recent developments related to President Trump, the drumbeat of negative news relating to nonprofits associated with him has also continued. The three most recent developments involve a federal investigation into the President's inaugural committee, the revelation that in "an abundance of caution" the President's foundation was reimbursed for six questionable transactions (presumably either by Mr. Trump personally or his companies), and today's announcement that President Trump has agreed with the NY Attorney General to shut down his foundation and give away its remaining money.

The Wall Street Journal broke the story that federal prosecutors are conducting a criminal investigation of the President's inaugural committee, a section 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization formally named the 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee. The investigation is out of the U.S. Attorney's office for the Southern District of New York, which not coincidentally also handled the investigation of Donald Trump's former attorney Michael Cohen; it was a recording seized as part of the Cohen investigation that triggered the investigation of the committee. The latter investigation focuses both on whether the committee misspent any of the $107 million in funds it raised and on whether any donors received improper access or policy concessions in return for their donations. While not formally part of the Mueller investigation, it may be relevant to that investigation if any foreign money flowed to the committee, which would have been illegal. The investigation of the committee is reportedly still at a relatively early stage. Additional coverage: CNN, NPR, N.Y. Times, The Hill.

As for the Donald J. Trump Foundation, its latest IRS annual return showed $271,356 in "REIMBURSEMENTS" (Part I, Line 11 and Statement 2), but the only explanation provided in the return (Statement 5) tied the reimbursement to the auction of a membership to the Trump National Golf Club in 2012. What is odd about this explanation is that the amount relating to this auction was only $158,000 (as first reported by David Fahrenthold at the Washington Post), so even with interest it should have totalled significantly less than the amount reported. The more complete explanation may instead be that there was more than just this one reimbursement: in the November 23, 2018 decision in the state case involving the Trump Foundation, the court noted that the Foundation and the other respondents "point out that the Foundation has already been reimbursed for six individual donations" and in a footnote further noted that "Respondents aver that 'in an abundance of caution,' the Foundation was reimbursed with interest for the following donations: (1) the [$100,000] Fisher House Transaction; (2) the [$158,000] Greenberg Transaction [relating to the auction]; (3) a [$5.000] 2013 DC Preservation League donation; (4) a [$25,000] 2013 "And Justice for All" payment; (5) a [$10,000] 2014 Unicorn Children's Foundation donation; and (6) a [$32,000] 2015 North American Land Trust donation." The links are to the news stories that report more details about these transactions. These amounts total more than what was reported on the 2017 IRS return, which may be because some of them were repaid either before or after 2017. Regardless, they reflect quite a trail of questionable expenditures by the Foundation.

That undoubtedly is part of what led to today's announcement by the New York Attorney General that the Trump Foundation has agreed to resolve under judicial supervision. Coverage: CNN; Washington Post.

Lloyd Mayer

December 18, 2018 in Federal – Executive, In the News, State – Judicial | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 19, 2018

IJ Lawsuit: Akron Charity Sues for Right to Shelter the Homeless

This week, the Institute for Justice sued on behalf of an Akron, Ohio, nonprofit that has established an encampment for people experiencing homelessness. (See also this New York Times article about the suit.)

TentCity2
Homeless Charity, Akron Ohio

The Homeless Charity and Village has been providing shelter for people without anywhere else to go for more than a year. The organization's logic is that, while camping in a tent is not ideal, an encampment is much better/safer than the likely alternatives, which is either dispersed camping or sleeping "rough." The lawsuit contends that denying the nonprofit the right to use its property in this way, under the circumstances of the case, is an irrational restriction on property rights. (Disclosure: I authored and co-signed a letter in support of the nonprofit on behalf of other local nonprofits and faculty over the summer.) The City of Akron, in contrast, argues that a campground is not an appropriate land use under its zoning code.

 

In an unrelated case, also filed this week, a Cincinnati church is seeking a writ of mandamus to abrogate a injunction that prohibits people from seeking or offering shelter in a tent on public or private land. (Disclosure: I am counsel of record in this case). The injunction was entered in a nuisance lawsuit brought by Hamilton County against the City of Cincinnati at the City's request. The church, which offers its land as a refuge to people experiencing homelessness, argues that the injunction was not properly issued and cannot apply to non-parties who were not part of the underlying case. 

Akron and Cincinnati are certainly not the first or only cities to clash with nonprofits over their land use. Many cities use zoning laws to restrict or exclude houses of worship (often triggering RLUIPA), group homes, schools for kids with disabilities, or other service providers. Some cities establish extensive business districts that expressly exclude nonprofit uses, either because they prioritize the value that businesses provide, or are concerned about the lack of revenue that a tax-exempt use would cause to the city. Although there hasn't yet been a lot of study of local control over nonprofit service delivery, that may change as city versus nonprofit disputes spill over into the courts. 

@JosephWMead

October 19, 2018 in In the News, State – Judicial | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Big Donors Sometimes Mean Big Headaches: George Mason University, University of Chicago, and More

GMUEvery charity leader knows that big donations came come with big strings attached. But some recent disputes between donors and charities highlight how problematic those strings can become.

George Mason University, a state university, is struggling to address a controversy that has erupted over the influence that sizeable donations to its affiliated foundation by the Charles Koch Foundation and others may have given over academic decisions. According to a Washington Post report, a student group, Transparent GMU, has sued in state court seeking access to agreements between the foundation and these donors, arguing that they are covered by Virginia's open records laws. While the group filed the lawsuit over a year ago, it appears to only have received limited coverage (see, e.g., Huffington Post, Fairfax Times) before a recent court hearing.

The Charles Koch Foundation donations at issue include $10 million gift relating to the renaming of the law school for deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and $5 million gift to the economics department to create three new faculty positions. According to a follow-up Washington Post story, the University's president has now stated that some gift agreements "fall short of the standards of academic independence."  For example, some of the agreements included terms granting donors a right participate in faculty selection and evaluation for some economics department positions. While the lawsuit is proceeding, the University has already released some of the agreements at issue and, according to a N.Y. Times story, launched an internal inquiry. The University has also noted that those agreements, with one exception, have expired.

Additional Coverage: The Chronicle of Higher Education; Inside Higher Ed.

The University of Chicago, a private university, is facing a different but related situation. Thomas L. Pearson and twin brother Timothy R. Pearson pledged to give $100 million to the University through their family foundation to create a research institute to advance the cause of world peace. As reported by Bloomberg and student newspaper The Chicago Maroon, the foundation has now filed a lawsuit in federal court (U.S. District Court, Northern District of Oklahoma) alleging numerous breaches of the grant agreement by the University and demanding the return of the $22.9 million it has paid so far. The University is seeking to dismiss the suit, according to a Chicago Tribune report, asserting that the foundation cannot prove that it violated any of the grant agreement's terms. Additional coverage: The Chronicle of Philanthropy (subscription required); The Nonprofit Times.

While these two stories are the most prominent recent ones, there have been recent developments in two other major disputes with donors. The Legal Intelligencer (law.com) reports that last month a federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled that Foremost Industries had to fulfill its $4 million pledge to Appalachian Bible College. The College had sued to enforce its gift agreement with the company, and the court considered the College's motion for summary judgment unopposed after the company failed to file its opposition brief by the deadline set by the court. The company is now closed, which may indicate that it will be difficult for the College to collect on its judgment.

And the The Inquirer (Philadelphia) reports that the Abington School District board of directors has voted to accept a $25 million gift from billionaire Stephen Schwarzman, after rejecting an earlier gift agreement with the donor after gift stirred local controversy because of concerns about its terms and the structure of the nonprofit the board is creating to administer the donation. The controversy erupted when the board initially voted to accept the gift and its then terms, including renaming the high school for the donor, without almost no advance warning to the public and without making the gift agreement public.

Lloyd Mayer

May 3, 2018 in Federal – Judicial, In the News, State – Judicial | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 18, 2017

Politics: Facts & Circumstances Test Survives Constitutional Challenge; Donor Disclosure Decision & Debate

ConstitutionIn a little noticed decision, but perhaps only because of the conclusion it reached, a federal district court in one of the cases arising out of the IRS application controversy rejected a constitutional challenge to the facts and circumstances test for political campaign activity embodied in Revenue Ruling 2004-6. In Freedom Path v. IRS (N.D.Tex. July 7, 2017), the court considered a motion for partial summary judgment asserting that the test was unconstitutionally vague in violation of both the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment and the First Amendment, as well as being overbroad and promoting viewpoint discrimination in further violation of the First Amendment. The court found that the identification of eleven specific and objective, although non-exclusive, factors in the Revenue Ruling was sufficient to defeat the facial challenge to the ruling based on vagueness. With respect to the First Amendment claims, the court distinguished decisions in the campaign finance area on the grounds that the tax rules relate to what types of speech will be subsidized through the federal tax system, as opposed to banning, restraining, or punishing speech, and concluded that the ruling therefore surveyed First Amendment challenge.

The other currently hot constitutional and policy topic relating to politics and nonprofits is the extent to which the government can or should compel the disclosure of  information relating to nonprofits involved in political activities or politically sensitive areas. There have two recent interesting developments in this area. First, in Matter of Evergreen Assn. v. Schneiderman (June 21, 2017), a state appellate court in New York limited the scope of a subpoena to a nonprofit organization on the grounds that it "infringed on the First Amendment right of the [nonprofit and its staff] to freedom of association, and was not sufficiently tailored to serve the compelling investigative purpose for which it was issued." The nonprofit at issue operates crisis pregnancy centers and the investigation related to the alleged unauthorized practice of medicine at those centers. The subpoena sought, among other information, a broad range of information relating to individuals and organizations associated with the nonprofit, including all of its staff; the court ordered that the subpoena be limited to information pertaining to the alleged unauthorized practice of medicine, with the trial court to conduct an in camera review of responsive documents to determine which ones satisfied this requirement.

Finally, there was an interesting addition to the ongoing debate about "dark money" and politically active nonprofits. Writing in the American Prospect, Nan Aron and Abby Levine of the Alliance for Justice argue against blanket disclosure of donors to politically active nonprofits such as social welfare organizations, instead supporting an approach that distinguishes between groups that "are funded by a small group of big donors and those that receive broad support from many people." Their arguments echo some of the more thoughtful supporters of campaign finance disclosure rules (see, for example, Richard Briffault (Columbia)), who recognize that the purported goals of such disclosure are not furthered by publicly identifying the many relatively small donors to candidates and political parties, so so such disclosure should be "rightsized" to target the information that is actually helpful to voters.

Lloyd Mayer

August 18, 2017 in In the News, State – Judicial | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

States in Action: Governance, Fundraising, Property Taxes, and Sermons

NY SealThere have been some interesting developments from the states relating to their bread and butter issues of governance, fundraising, and property tax exemptions, as well as a new law in Texas relating to sermons.

With respect to governance, another round of amendments to the New York Nonprofit Revitalization Act went into effect last month (except for one provision that went into effect on January 1st of this year). The amendments clarified a number of important provisions as well as relaxing some of the stricter rules in the original Act, including those relating to related party transactions. For a helpful summary, see this National Law Review article by Pamela Landman (Cadwalader) and Paul W. Mourning (Cadwalader). One interesting nonprofit governance case under the Act is Schneiderman v. The Lutheran Care Network et al., in which New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's office challenged the management fees charged by The Lutheran Care Network (TLCN) to one of its affiliates, in part because TLCN had exercised its authority over the affiliate to render the members of the affiliate's board of directors identical to the members of the TLCN board. The trial court rejected the AG office's position, citing the business judgment rule and the presumption that corporate officers and directors act in good faith, regardless of the decision by TLCN to make the affiliate board's membership mirror that of the TLCN board. The March 13th opinion does not appear to be publicly available, but for coverage see the Albany Times Union stories from March 21st, January 13th, and last October 1st.

NY AG Schneiderman office's was more successful in pursuing a fundraising-related claim against the Breast Cancer Survivors Foundation, Inc. (BCSF) and its President and Founder Dr. Yulius Poplyansky. In that case, the resulting settlement closed the "shell charity" BCSF nationwide and resulted in nearly $350,000 to be paid to legitimate breast cancer organizations. The settlement is one result of a broader NY AG "Operation Bottomfeeder" initiative aimed at such charities. The Nonprofit Quarterly noticed a troubling aspect of this case, however: the person apparently behind BCSF was Mark Gelvan, who has "a long history of such activity" and who also was banned for life from such fundraising by none other than the NY AG's office 13 years ago. What additional penalties he may face is unclear, as the investigation into BCSF is apparently continuing.

Turning to property tax exemptions, last year I mentioned that the Massachusetts Supreme Court was considering what counts as sufficiently "religious" use of real property to qualify for exemption as a house of religious worship under Massachusetts law. We now have an opinion in Shrine of Our Lady of La Sallette v. Board of Assessors, and religious organizations in Massachusetts can (mostly) breath a sigh of relief. While exemption statutes are strictly construed, the court rejected a narrow reading of the statute at issue here that would have subject some supporting facilities to tax.  In doing so, the court stated "we recognize that a house of religious worship is more than the chapel used for prayer and the classrooms used for religious instruction. It includes the parking lot where congregants park their vehicles, the anteroom where they greet each other and leave their coats and jackets, the parish hall where they congregate in religious fellowship after prayer services, the offices for the clergy and staff, and the storage area where the extra chairs are stored for high holy days." The court then concluded that because the welcome center and a maintenance building both had a dominant purpose connected with religious worship and instruction they were fully exempt from tax, contrary to the position of the Board of Assessors, which had limited full exemption to a church, chapels, a monastery, and a retreat center. It agreed with the Board, however, that a safe house for battered women (leased to a another nonprofit for this purpose) and a wildlife sanctuary did not meet this test (although if the proper application had been filed, they might have been exempt because their dominant purpose was charitable). More coverage: WBUR News.

Finally, one other religious organization-related state law development. Several years ago attorneys for the mayor of Houston subpoenaed the sermons of five pastors who opposed a city ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation during litigation relating to an attempt to repeal the ordinance. She dropped the subpoenas in the face of nationwide criticism, and the ordinance was repealed by Houston voters in November 2015. Nevertheless, the Houston Legislature and current Texas Governor Greg Abbott felt it was important to bar Texas government officials from ever compelling the disclosure of sermons in the future, and so they enacted legislation along those lines last month.

Lloyd Mayer

 

June 21, 2017 in Church and State, In the News, State – Executive, State – Judicial, State – Legislative | Permalink | Comments (0)