WGBH Swapped Fund-Raising Lists
With the Democratic National Committee
Possible Tax-Law Violation Uncovered by Wellesley Mother
July 2--Boston’s public television station, WGBH swapped its fund-raising list with the Democratic National Committee, a possible violation of tax laws. But it doesn’t look like the IRS is doing anything about it and WGBH isn’t saying much.
Angela Lifsey, WGBH director of media and community relations, said, “We’re a little embarrassed about it.” She explained that some new employees who made the swap had been unaware of the station’s policy against sharing lists with political or religious groups.
The incident was uncovered in May when a 5-year-old Wellesley boy received a fund-raising letter from the Democratic National Committee. The boy’s mother, Jody Black, had made a donation to WGBH in her and her son’s name last fall, which is how his name got on the station’s donor list and into the hands of the Democratic National Committee.
WGBH subsequently admitted that it exchanged part of its list of 225,000 donor names with the committee. WGBH is part of the Public Broadcasting System network and has a not-for-profit tax status. Black, a Republican, said she was initally appalled that WGBH shared her name with a political party. A former corporate attorney, Black said she immediately guessed that the list was exchanged after her son’s name, Sam, appeared on the material sent by the DNC.
WGBH and all not-for-profit corporations, referred to in legal circles as a 501 (c) (3), are prohibited from supporting any political or religious party. Republicans were not approached about exchanging lists with the television station. The station, not the committee, initiated the trade.
WGBH spokeswoman Leah Hollenberger said it was “simply a mistake.”
“Unfortunately in a staff transition some lists were swapped with the DNC,” she told Massachusetts News. “It did violate station policy and we are very sorry and apologetic it happened. Steps have been taken to make sure it will not happen again.” Those steps include “internal checks,” which Hollenberger did not detail. She said only that “their internal checks have been reexamined as part of an internal process.”
Hollenberger also refused to release the names of the WGBH employees who made the deal with the Democratic National Committee because, she said, “It is a personnel issue and we do not discuss personnel issues publicly.”
According to the IRS: “If a substantial part of the activities of an organization consists of carrying on propaganda or attempting to influence legislation, the organization’s exemption from federal income tax will be revoked. This includes any attempt to influence any legislation through an effort to affect the opinions of the general public or any segment thereof.”
Doug Fleming, a lawyer and chairman of the tax section of the Massachusetts Bar Association, told Massachusetts News that because WGBH has a special tax status where it does not pay income tax, the IRS could revoke that privilege if it is deemed that WGBH is deliberately supporting one political party or another by exchanging donor lists.
“Since this matter has been reported in a newspaper, I would not be surprised if the IRS has contacted the PBS affiliate regarding their not-for-profit status,” said Fleming. “If the IRS determines it was done by a low-level employee, that it was not intentional” by those who run the station, “it might just get a warning,” he said.
“It would be more serious if it was determined to be directed from the top, intentional and planned,” Fleming said. “The IRS might then end up revoking its non-profit tax status.” Peggy Riley, an IRS spokesman, told Massachusetts News, “We cannot confirm or deny the existence of any ongoing investigation. Privacy and disclosure laws will not allow us to disclose whether there is an investigation on nay taxpayer.”
Telephone calls to WGBH about whether the IRS had contacted the station were not returned before Massachusetts News went to press. (If an indictment is filed against WGBH by the IRS, it can be made public.) Also, Democratic National Committee officials did not return phone calls regarding the matter.
Lifsey said she is aware of consumers’ hatred of junk mail, but added, “It’s a standard industry practice for non-profits like WGBH to swap or rent lists to other groups in an effort to expand membership.” Renting names means the group can use WGBH names for one mailing only.
She said she is not aware of any other occasion when the station violated its mailing list policy.
After receiving an apologetic phone call from an official at WGBH, Jody Black says she plans to donate again to WGBH next year.
John Pike is a free-lance writer who lives in Lowell.