How the Recall Filner Effort Landed a Women Vets Group in the Hot Seat
National Women Veterans Association of America President Tara Jones was among the most outspoken proponents of removing Mayor Bob Filner from office.
Tara Jones, who leads the National Women Veterans Association of America, made a dramatic about-face during the sexual harassment scandal that took down Bob Filner’s mayorship. She went from leading a group set to celebrate Filner’s life work at a big fundraiser to publicly calling for his resignation, and selling “Please Resign!” T-shirts on the organization’s website.
But in actively working to oust one man from his job, Jones may have stepped outside the bounds of her own as the leader of a tax-exempt charity.
A La Mesa-based grant-writing firm has severed ties with the NWVAA and filed three complaints with the California attorney general’s office, including one alleging that the veterans group violated federal law by engaging in overtly political acts aimed at removing Filner from office.
The Internal Revenue Code prohibits 501(c)(3) nonprofits from participating in efforts to elect or defeat a candidate for public office. In a recall election, Filner would have been a candidate for his own office.
“I consider us to be required reporters,” said Penny Goforth, senior associate for Grant Writing Specialists. “If someone is acting bad, it’s the nonprofit community’s responsibility to let the AG know.”
“A 501(c)(3) cannot engage in partisan political activity under any circumstances,” said Pat Libby, a clinical professor at the University of San Diego’s Nonprofit Institute and an expert on nonprofit political activity. “It’s forbidden by law.”
Nicholas Pacilio, a spokesman for Attorney General Kamala Harris, said the office generally does not comment on complaints it receives.
Goforth said she also plans to make a formal complaint to the IRS.
Goforth’s other two complaints to the attorney general’s office suggest Jones violated state laws regulating the conduct of nonprofit executives. One of those complaints cited a VOSD investigation in which two former NWVAA board members alleged Jones denied them the right to review board meeting minutes and financial statements, as required by state law.
A. Latham Staples, a founding board member of the NWVAA, told VOSD that Jones’ focus on politics over programs was part of the reason he resigned.
“Nothing illegal is going on over here,” Jones told VOSD Thursday. “We’ve already spoken to our attorneys pertaining to it.”
Michael Pallamary, an architect of the campaign to recall Filner, confirmed that Jones joined him in late August to hand out recall petitions at barbershops in southeastern San Diego.
He said that Jones did not represent herself as president of the NWVAA at the recall events.
Pallamary said he hadn’t seen the press release for an Aug. 20 event at Imperial Barber Shop that identified Jones as president of the NWVAA.
“We had common goals,” Pallamary said of Jones. “She was great to work with. I hope everything is on the up and up.”
Libby said that a leader of a 501(c)(3) nonprofit openly calling for the election or removal of a politician would blur the line between private opinion and the official position of the nonprofit.
Libby said she could not comment directly on Jones’ conduct, but said 501(c)(3) nonprofit executives are prohibited from any political activity aimed at a specific candidate. This would apply to both calls for resignation and participation in a recall campaign, Libby said.
Since the language of the 501(c)(3) section of the federal tax code focuses on candidates for office, the IRS might be hesitant to fault a nonprofit for urging the resignation of an already elected public official, said Abby Levine, legal director of the Bolder Advocacy initiative for the Alliance for Justice, which consults grant-givers on how to support nonprofits engaged in political activity.
Levine said the rules about 501(c)(3) nonprofits participating in recalls are especially murky. But the rules prohibit charities from endorsing a candidate who would succeed a politician who has been recalled, Levine said.
“We wanted him to resign,” Jones said of Filner. “As far as the recall, I never collected one signature.”
Goforth’s firm filed an application with the attorney general’s office on Aug. 8 to be the NWVAA’s fundraising counsel, but the relationship quickly soured.
Goforth said Jones provided conflicting and incomplete information about the organization’s budget and the number of veterans NWVAA served.
The NWVAA’s January 2013 articles of incorporation state that the organization will operate as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to serve the unique needs of female veterans, and that it would not engage in any “substantial” political activity.
On its website, the NWVAA says it offers a wide range of services to female veterans, including affordable childcare, mental health services and assistance in speeding up Department of Veterans Affairs claims.
Jones told VOSD that the NWVAA’s top priority now is to assist female veterans whom Filner allegedly harmed and to assist the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department in its investigation of Filner.
“After numerous meetings where she was totally unprepared (or a no-show) and numerous requests for any proof that they were actually doing what their web site said, we realized that she is not running any programs at all,” Goforth said in an email. “She is collecting money from fundraisers and those donations are basically being used by her to finance her political ‘center stage syndrome.’”
Goforth said her experience with Jones was the worst in her 17 years of working with nonprofit executives.
Goforth and her colleagues were especially concerned about Jones’ lack of understanding about the IRS’s prohibition against political activity for 501(c)(3) nonprofits. To justify her efforts to remove Filner, Jones emailed Goforth a CNN clip that noted tax-exempt nonprofits could legally spend less than half of their funds on political activity.
The only problem: That CNN story referred to 501(c)(4) nonprofit groups, which can legally raise and spend funds on issues-based political campaigns.
Goforth said she’d told Jones to avoid engaging in political activity on behalf of the NWVAA if she wanted to continue operating it as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
“What he did is wrong and to tell us not to speak out is an injustice against all women,” Jones wrote in an email to Goforth explaining her call for Filner’s resignation, which Goforth shared with VOSD.
During the 2012 election cycle, Jones endorsed Filner on behalf of the NWVAA, saying he had “earned the right to be mayor.” After allegations surfaced that Filner had sexually harassed numerous women, including female veterans, Jones became a fixture in the media spotlight and said her organization would hold Filner accountable at an Aug. 30 NWVAA fundraiser where Filner had been slated to receive a lifetime achievement award and deliver the keynote speech.
At an Aug. 7 press conference, Jones publicly called for Filner’s resignation, but said she still expected him to attend the fundraiser.
After Filner announced his resignation on Aug. 23, Jones told UT-TV that the NWVAA would be celebrating his resignation at the event.
“We want all of San Diego to come out and show their support and donate,” Jones told UT-TV, noting that tickets cost $100.
Jones said NWVAA held the event, but that it did not make any money.
“Every dollar they’ve taken to spend in a wrongful way is a dollar that could be helping people,” said Leticia Egea McClain, a grant-writing associate who works with Goforth. “We only work with reputable nonprofits.”