Friday, March 13, 2009

Virtual 990s Lead to Real Complaint

Since Rose Fernandez is running for the top education job in the State of Wisconsin, I thought that I would check into her background in education. Since she has apparently never been a teacher or an administrator at a school or school district, my available areas of inquiry were very few. The closest thing that I could find was her leadership of the advocacy organization, Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families (WCVSF). Since this appeared to be my only way to learn more about what she has done related to education, I decided to request this organization's IRS form 990's. This is a form for all organizations that are recognized as a nonprofit by the IRS. It gives all kinds of useful information, that could aid me in my effort to further understand the organization that Rose Fernandez had run for the last several years. Unfortunately I quickly found myself on an odyssey trying to obtain information that is regulated by the IRS and should be readily available for members of the public.

The IRS rules regarding public disclosure of 990 forms are pretty clear. The public can request a nonprofit's 990's by mail or in-person. Requests by mail should be fulfilled in 30 days and in-person requests are to be fulfilled by the organization on the same day that the request is made. For this reason, most organizations keep copies of these documents on hand so that they are always available for public inspection during normal business hours. I chose to request the WCVSF 990's in-person because obviously I don't have 30 days to wait before learning more about Rose Fernandez and the organization that she led.

On Thursday March 5, 2009, I went to the WCVSF web site but found only a P.O. Box address. I looked on every page and couldn't find a street address anywhere. I looked for any possible instruction or link given advising the public of exactly how they could obtain the organization's 990's. Since there was no street address or instructions for how to obtain this information, I quickly found myself investing way too much of my own time trying to track down that which the organization is obligated to provide. Suspecting that WCVSF was a recognized corporation in the state, I searched and found their incorporation records on the Department of Financial Institutions website. That listing also provided the name and address of their registered agent. The average person probably would not have known to look for such information, nor should that be required of them. The registered agent was listed as MIBEF Corporate Services INC, located in downtown Milwaukee.

Since WCVSF gave me no other options for making an in-person request, I decided to make an in-person request for their 990's later in the day on March 5. When I arrived at the office, it ended up being a part of the Michael, Best and Friedrich law firm. I spoke with a paralegal there who seemed unsure as how to process my in-person request. She asked me for my contact information and advised me that she would work on my request. I was sure to remind her that the IRS rules state that WCVSF was required to comply with my in-person request the same business day.

On Friday March 6 at noon, I had still not heard from anyone regarding my in-person request from the previous day. I called the paralegal that was trying to help me but only got her voice mail. Later, I found myself in the downtown area of Milwaukee and decided to just stop in again to check on the status of the request that I had made almost a full 24 hours prior. The paralegal advised me that she has been unable to communicate with the organization. She further offered that this has been a challenge with the organization's leadership for some time. She then gave me the name and phone number of the new President of the WCVSF, Bob Reber. Before leaving the building I called him and notified him of my nearly 24 hour long odyssey to obtain his organization's form 990's. I gave him my contact information, and he told me that he would work on tracking down these forms that are supposed to be available to the public upon request. On the evening of March 6, I finally got a call from Mr. Reber advising me that he would have the 990's delivered to me by fax by Monday morning, March 9.

Monday morning came and went and I received no communication from Mr. Reber. Later that afternoon I tried to call his number but got no response. Finally after four full days and much of my own time spent, I received the WCVSF 990's via fax.

It was pretty clear to me early on that this organization had no process in place to comply with this important public disclosure rule. Their web site gives nothing but a post office box, they appear to have a chronic lack communication with their own registered agent, and they didn't appear to know the location of their important IRS documents. Although they may have been pulling in decent amounts of money from their donors, those funds have not appeared to produce good administration up until this point.

For an organization that spends thousands of dollars on its website each year, one would think that it should not be that hard to give at least discreet instruction for obtaining what they are obligated to provide. If they insist on having a P.O. Box for an office location, they could avoid this problem in the future by simply providing a link to a pdf copy of the documents that they are required to disclose. Over the years, they have clearly not put a priority on this important requirement, and even after a week of this drama, they have still done nothing visible to avoid this disclosure problem in the future. It is for this reason that I have filed a formal complaint with the Internal Revenue Service.

Needless to say, based on this experience, my personal impression of Rose Fernandez administrative skills is not very high. If this is how casually these important requirements have been treated, how many other areas have been neglected on her watch?


James Wigderson said...

Let me get this straight. You're complaining because the organization that Rose no longer leads was a little slow in getting you some paperwork, and you think they should have made your life easier some how.

What a whiner.

Cory Liebmann said...

I'll set aside your name calling and address the actual facts. They are very simple.

a. the irs has very clear rules that were not followed. you don't like them? talk to the irs.

b. the disorganized nature that she left the org in says something about her leadership and lack of attention to important detail.

tjmertz said...

More on the 990s here:

More on WCVSF here: