The IRS wanted to charge me $547,830.30 in taxes and fines for expenses related to running the nonprofit I founded, for my work helping families with lead poisoned children. In the end they adjusted the amount due to $0. [In fact I am awaiting a tax-refund!]
In 2017 we live in a “guilty until proven innocent” society
and my story serves as an important example.
Friday, September 15, 2017
This is perhaps the most important post I have written in the past year and I implore you to read it in full.
While I often speak out about companies trying to attack my findings of lead in their consumer goods (and the resultant need for legal representation in those fairly minor battles), I have been virtually silent about a series of events that has threatened to destroy both my personal life and my professional life, and now it is time to share at least part of the story – as this tale comes with an important and exciting victory.
Note: this post is a work in progress and may be updated a bit over the coming days.
This situation that I am about to share with you in detail has caused significant damage to my reputation. It has caused me to lose income and to incur great personal expense. It has significantly stalled my advocacy work and impacted my ability to help families with lead poisoned children (although helping families is something I continue to do every day.)
Most important, this situation has caused me to lose friends and supporters – because the friends and supporters were told a series of groundless lies – which either they believed, or which planted seeds of doubt that poisoned our relationship. It is mostly for these friends and members of my community that I write this post — as the loss of your friendship and the hateful things that were said as a result of the lies you were told… still hurts.
All the above has also caused a huge amount of stress to my family and specifically to my children – who now suffer with symptoms of clinical PTSD from living through the sudden unexpected loss of innocence and faith that accompanies exposure to inexplicable betrayal and injustice.
The best way for me to describe what has happened is through the use of a timeline, as the order of events truly speaks for itself without much interpretation. The timeline below does not include ALL of the important events – just the ones most critical to telling this one part of a multifaceted story — specifically including the elements critical to understanding this past week’s victory.
Some background: My children were acutely lead poisoned…
August 2005 – As many of you know, my young sons were poisoned when a commercial painting contractor we hired to repaint the exterior of our historic home lied to us. Rather than observing lead-safe work practices as promised, he instead used the most dangerous (and illegal) methods of surface preparation prior to repainting our home (including burning the old lead paint layer with open-flame torches), and acutely poisoned our boys and severely contaminated our home and yard.
While the cost of the impact on our children is immeasurable, the aftermath of the incident (including clean up of the property) cost us over $200,000. Our two youngest children at the time (who were an infant and toddler when they were exposed) suffered impacts including permanent brain damage. Despite being smart, wonderful kids, they are also now medically fragile, educationally challenged, very high-maintenance, special needs kiddos.
As a result of this personal tragedy, I committed myself to learning everything I could about this subject personally – including how and why no one (including our pediatricians) seemed to know anything about childhood lead poisoning in 2005. When I began to uncover the extent of the epidemic – and its cover-up, I committed my life to personally educating parents about this needless health tragedy and long-standing failure of American public health policy.
I became a vocal environmental activist for the cause of Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention…
2006-2011 – I began speaking and writing about what I was learning regarding the true scope of lead poisoning in this country, including its history, and the myths and misinformation that continue to permeate the public’s knowledge-base on this issue. Most important, I began writing about steps parents can take to prevent exposure to lead and the consequent poisoning of their children, themselves and their communities.
2011, March 31 – I founded the non-profit Lead Safe America Foundation (LSAF), with a supportive and involved Board of Directors.
2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 – Our team worked tirelessly to increase awareness of childhood lead poisoning in this country. Our work was a significant contributor to much of the unprecedented press coverage of the issue over this time period, as one of our specific goals was to keep family stories in the news so that the issue remained personal and relatable. Throughout much of my time with LSAF my work was “followed” by lead-industry lobbyists (specifically including the lobbyist for Sherwin Williams.) They would come to my presentations and speaking engagements, and they followed my writings (specifically my blog posts and updates). At one point (in early 2012), there were even direct threats to some of my sponsors and board members — threats implying very specifically that certain business relationships would be jeopardized if they stayed involved with my advocacy work, my film project, or the organization I founded. In 2012 the Sherwin Williams lobbyist called and asked to meet with me personally, to which I responded that I would be happy to do so if I could film our meeting. I did not hear from him again directly after that time.
What happened: My work got very “high profile” very quickly, around the time of the presidential election…
2016, Thursday, February 25 – I organized a “town hall” event in a church in Flint, MI where I spoke to an audience of 500 (in the middle of a blizzard!) with Bernie Sanders at my side, and a good contingent of the nation’s tv press represented in the audience.
During this event, I specifically and clearly stated that there is an industry responsible for what had happened in Flint and that this industry (the lead industry) needed to be held accountable for their actions, (watch the video of that statement here) and that (to date) no one was calling out this industry (they were instead blaming government, and landlords, and infrastructure issues – keeping the heat off of the industry that created the problem.)
At this event I also announced that the documentary film I had spent several years directing and producing, MisLEAD; America’s Secret Epidemic [a full-length feature film sharing the stories of families of lead poisoned children around the country while also detailing the actions of the lead industry in developing, selling, and aggressively marketing and promoting extremely neurotoxic products — and knowingly, intentionally lying to the American public about the widespread, indiscriminate dangers to humans from these products] was “in post production and headed to theaters soon!”
Wednesday, March 23, 2016: I was sitting in LSAF’s HQ office (in Portland, Oregon) and received a hand-delivered official letter from the Oregon Department of Justice (DOJ), noting that there was an inquiry involving LSAF. I later learned that this inquiry was the result of an “anonymous complaint” that had been made to the DOJ, and concluded that given the timing of receiving the initial notice of this inquiry that it seemed that the complaint must have been made shortly after the event in Flint with Bernie Sanders.
Friday, March 25, 2016: LSAF hired an Oregon-based nonprofit attorney (John) to assist in conversations with the DOJ.
Thursday, April 28, 2016: At the advice of LSAF’s attorney, in an effort to respond in language and with tools the DOJ would find most acceptable, we started working with a professional bookkeeper (Don) and professional Quickbooks trainer and consultant (Alicia) on putting all of the LSAF transactions from 2016 into Quickbooks (and setting up Quickbooks and systems for best accounting practices for transactions moving forward).
Tuesday, May 3, 2016: We received a letter from the IRS (dated 5/2/16) stating that LSAF was being audited for the Fiscal Year 2014.
Tuesday, May 10, 2016: My husband and I first met in person with the DOJ representatives and the initial attorney hired by LSAF to represent the Foundation in this matter. [On the way to the meeting we unexpectedly had to pick up our youngest son from school because he was up in a tree at school and none of the staff could get him down!] During this meeting (with our youngest squirming around on the floor while playing a game on my phone) I explained to the DOJ that historically I had kept most of LSAF’s financial records in FileMaker Pro databases (because it was easy for me to do that as I have more than 25 years experience as a FileMaker Pro database designer.) The DOJ indicated that while they could not legally dictate our software choices, they felt Quickbooks was a more appropriate tool for the job, so, in addition to the work we were already doing on Quickbooks (for 2016) we also started a full forensic reconstruction of LSAF books back to the beginning (2011), moving everything over to Quickbooks.
May 27, 2016 – My mother passed away (far too young, just 73 years old) at her home in Hawaii as a result a rare and aggressive form of cancer. I still am in shock and cannot believe this happened!
May 31, 2016 (apprx)- I met with an LSAF Board Member and a new (local, Portland) attorney team, a team that was hired later in June to represent LSAF in their conversations with the DOJ.
June 2, 2016 – LSAF received the engagement letter from the new attorney team.
June 13, 2016 – preliminary meeting with IRS Representative at LSAF HQ regarding 2014 audit.
2016, June/July (& later): During the time following receipt of the notice about the DOJ inquiry, several of the original Board members either stepped down or were “requested” by the new attorney team to leave the Board. [Some Board members left as planned when their terms expired in the summer of 2016, other expressed concern that they felt coerced to resign from the Board.]
July 16, 2016 – LSAF’s newly appointed Board Treasurer emailed me and asked me to stop the forensic reconstruction of the Foundation’s books. As this work was the only piece of information that could truly (and easily!) exonerate both myself and LSAF’s Board of Directors of any wrongdoing (for both the DOJ and IRS inquiries), I continued to hire professionals to do this work at my own expense over the course of the coming year (to the tune of more than $10,000.)
The beginning of the end: August 2016…
Friday, August 12, 2016 – I informed the Board that I had received a communication from the State of Oregon that LSAF was selected “at random” for an inspection of our XRF instrument. I am trained and certified in using the instrument and the instrument was properly registered with the State at the time, with the registration certificate appropriately display at the office. In the 7+ years since receiving my certification (link here) I had never once been called upon for an inspection, so this seemed very unusual.
I later learned that this inspection was in fact not random, but was precipitated by an anonymous complaint to the Oregon Radiation Safety Board.
Wednesday, August 17, 2016 – The State of Oregon Radiation Safety Division conducted an inspection of the Foundation’s XRF with me at LSAF’s HQ office. We passed the inspection with flying colors (including the portion about operator understanding and usage of the instrument).
Thursday, August 18, 2016 – My husband and I met with LSAF’s attorney team and discussed the possible future options for LSAF and our role with LSAF in light of the DOJ inquiry. We were told by these attorneys that we “really should hire our own separate attorneys” to negotiate on our behalf. We told these attorneys that the allegations (which to this day are not – to our knowledge – official nor formal allegations) of the inquiry were ridiculous and groundless — and that we (and The Board) were completely innocent of any alleged financial impropriety or malfeasance.
In this meeting one of the attorneys for LSAF said clearly … “innocence is not the point; to potentially go up against the DOJ would be very expensive; you simply cannot afford to prove your innocence in this matter.”
We reiterated that we were innocent, that the Board was innocent and that the scope of the anonymous complaint seemed to have been specifically designed to destroy the organization.
We also responded that we would do whatever it takes to help prove The Board and ourselves innocent of these allegations.
August 25, 2016 – I got an e-mail from LSAF’s attorney team that I was “fired” from my position of Executive Director for the organization that I founded.
I (fairly immediately) responded to this e-mail sharing my shock and disbelief with the Board and heard back from several Board members (I heard back from 50% of the remaining board that same day) that they were as surprised as I was about the firing as (they said) there was no Board vote to fire me and they were not even aware that I had been fired (!)
The past year: (September 2016 to September 2017)…
Over the year that followed I found lawyers to represent me on several fronts, covering several specialties related to this situation.
- One lawyer is a tax specialist,
- another is a documentary film and intellectual property specialist,
- another works on employment issues,
- yet another handles nonprofit issues
- and I hired yet another to deal with the “crazy” I was simultaneously dealing with around my mother’s death and her estate.
While not many questions have been asked of me specifically by the DOJ during this time, with the help of our attorneys we did our best to respond to each question that was asked as thoroughly as possible. For example: in response to a speculative allegation that I “did not have sufficient nor adequate communications with LSAF’s Board of Directors”, we provided over 4,000 emails (about 8,000 pages!) from 2011 through 2016 – which were specifically e-mails between me and my Board of Directors. [This works out to an average of more than two emails a day, each and every day over 5 years.]
At one point this year we also learned that the DOJ forwarded their paperwork about their inquiry to the IRS, including their (incorrect) analysis of income and expenses for the organization for the years 2013, 2014 and 2015.
December 3, 2016 – After a several month depression-fueled blogging hiatus (August to December 2016), with the help of my friend Carissa I started blogging again. My first new blog post (entitled “S’nope”) was responding to a Snopes article attempting to discredit my findings of very high lead levels in vintage pyrex cookware and dishes. With the S’Nope article, my monthly readership jumped from 1,772 to 11,824 and then continued to shoot up from there!
January 30, 2017 – I started doing independent consumer goods testing again and found high levels lead in several items intended for children, including newly manufactured baby bottles and sippy cups.
February 25, 2017 – I got a letter from the attorneys for Green Sprouts threatening me for finding and publicly disclosing the presence of lead paint on their popular infant sippy cup. Read more about that here. This was to be just one of several product manufactures to attempt to attack my XRF testing & related findings this year.
The past several months… (Spring/ Summer 2017)
May 8, 2017 – I was sent a letter from the IRS stating they intended to fine me up to $547,830.30 for suspected excess benefit transactions during my work with Lead Safe America (for lay-people that translates to “suspected embezzlement”) this included a possible 200% fine and 25% tax of $60,870.04 on a base amount of $243,480.13, taxes and fines payable to the IRS if these allegations were determined to be true.
If the IRS were to determine that these were, in fact excess benefit transactions I would have to also pay $243,480.13 in restitution to LSAF, for a total in fines and penalties of something like $791,310.43.
“Fun” fact: This amount is more than 200% of the total earnings of LSAF during the time period being reviewed.
This is the main reason I have been in panic mode and asking for donations for my lawyers since May (and before!), because although I knew I was innocent of these allegations I was not sure how to present the required information to the IRS. I would not have been able to respond to the IRS without appropriate legal representation.
The irony all along was that the opposite of the allegations was true, from 2011 to 2015 I used all of my personal income (from my database consulting and rental real estate) as a revolving line of credit to help cover LSAF expenses. Much of the perceived potential “excess benefit” came from a misinterpretation of the financial data because of the DOJ’s refusal to review my FileMaker Pro based financial summaries. Money I had personally loaned to the organization was perceived by the IRS and DOJ as money that was donated (by others) and money that was repaid to me (loan repayments) were perceived (incorrectly) as money that I “took” (inappropriately) from the organization.
During so much of this time (since 2011) my family lived on a shoe-string budget to make it possible to grow the organization – with a food base of more beans and rice and oatmeal than I care to recall, our home in foreclosure much of the time and our utilities turned off more often than I would like to share. So many times throughout this past year friends have repeated the phrase…“no good deed goes unpunished.”
The deadline to respond to the IRS letter (to avoid the potential for nearly $800,000 in fines for my work helping families) was June 7, 2017.
June 6, 2017 – I brought my tax lawyer on board (I think she’s superb, by the way, in case you need someone with this type of expertise!) and we responded to the IRS asking for an extension to respond. We were granted extra time to respond.
July 7, 2017 – my team (bookkeeper and attorney) submitted a 52-page letter to the IRS, along with about 2,000 pages in supporting financial documentation (including Quickbooks summaries of the years in question) explaining why the initial assessments that the IRS had presented to us were incorrect.
The IRS agent reviewed this documentation and responded by dropping all concern for late-2014 and later and following up with a letter (working backwards to 2013) of additional specific organizational charges she was still reviewing. This list included many expenses that were direct support to families of lead poisoned children (like a moving van for a family with a lead poisoned child in Alabama, alternate housing for a family with lead poisoned children in Iowa, replacement furniture for a family with a lead contaminated home in Connecticut and an emergency cell phone for a family with a lead poisoned child in Missouri, etc.) As a result, we felt fairly confident that a subsequent letter explaining and discussing the charges in question would have a favorable outcome.
August 14, 2017 – Someone made an anonymous complaint to the Oregon Radiation Safety Board that I was potentially guilty of operating an XRF illegally or inappropriately! (Oh yeah! Let’s throw that into the mix!) Read more about that incident here. [It was when I got this call that I learned that the similar call from a year earlier was also based on an anonymous complaint!]
August 23, 2017 – my team submitted a follow-up letter to the IRS, with supporting documentation on some of the charges that were still being reviewed. This letter and its attachments were only about 323 pages!
THE OUTCOME: The IRS dismissed the entire concern, but this ordeal is not yet over.
Tuesday, September 12, 2017 – I met with my team (my lawyer, my bookkeeper and the IRS agent) at IRS HQ in Portland, Oregon. We had a 6.5 hour meeting scheduled to review any outstanding questions or concerns about suspected/alleged financial improprieties (including concerns for excess benefits, or improper payments to me of any kind.) The meeting concluded early, and 100% in my favor, concluding that there were absolutely no excess benefits nor improper payments to me for my work with LSAF. Please see the linked letter from my attorney summarizing our meeting with the IRS. We were told to expect a letter from the IRS directly in the next 4 to 6 weeks. Another outcome of the preparation for this meeting was the re-confirmation that, in fact (as I have said all along) LSAF owes me a considerable amount (were they to adhere to the agreements made over the years by the Board of Directors.)
WHAT’S NEXT: I still need to present this information to the DOJ so they will hopefully also dismiss the concern, & to LSAF to negotiate my “terms of separation” from the organization…
While the September 12th outcome might seem like an enormous victory (and it is, really – to know that the IRS agrees with what I have said all along) there are still quite a few hurdles in getting to the end of this saga (which if you add the drama we have experienced to the above timeline would really turn into a very compelling “movie of the week”).
We still need to share the IRS’ conclusion (and supporting documentation) with the DOJ and with LSAF and for this we need an attorney team that is a specialist in nonprofit matters. We also need to officially, formally negotiate my “terms of separation” from LSAF (including formally establishing ownership of the film so I can complete it and make it available as a resource to parents.) We have found the perfect attorney team for this, but need to raise the $10,000 for their retainer.
We just heard (on Wednesday) that LSAF is “planning on dissolving” – so there is significant urgency to this need.
Last August when LSAF’s attorneys said to me “You cannot afford to prove your innocence”… they were likely specifically speaking to the cost of legal representation and related expenses, which are now more than $50,000.
My lawyers to date have donated much of their time, have reduced their rates and have been very generous with payment timelines, and the remaining fees are completely reasonable.
I currently need to come up with the following to pay my team:
- $6,500 is owed to the bookkeeper who helped with the project
- $20,000 is owed to the tax law specialist
- $10,000 is owed to other attorneys who have helped during this time
- $10,000 is needed for retainer to bring a final set of attorneys on to the team.
We are also four months behind on our mortgage and have a shutoff notice for our water (as a result of all of our available resources going into this effort to prove my innocence in these matters) so could use help with personal expenses as well (loans or contributions are welcome.)
Apparently it is truly expensive to “prove your innocence“, but also 100% worth it.
I need your help to cover these expenses. If you can donate, please do.
- you can give via my “Chip In” link (via PayPal with a credit card),
- you can give via GoFundMe,
- you can also send me a check: Tamara Rubin, 7933 SE 15th Avenue, Portland, OR 97202
- you can also support my work and help cover these costs at no extra cost to you by starting any shopping you do on Amazon from one of my links.
If you have more significant resources to help me get to the end of this war, perhaps you could make a loan which I can pay back with future income or eventual funds from my inheritance (when my mother’s 4.5 acre farm in Napa sells.)
Not only do I have the cost of defending my innocence, but this “project” (for lack of a better word) has also taken my attention nearly full-time (nearly all available time beyond the time required to care for my children), preventing me from earning a reasonable living from my many other other projects and work activities this past year, however the loans so far from friends and families has also prevented us from qualifying for something as simple as food stamps. As a result, anything and everything helps at this moment! [I have also started consulting again on lead poisoning prevention related projects and would love to talk to you about helping with future projects, outreach events or speaking engagements you might have in the works!]
My main goal in all of this (once this chapter is 100% behind me) is to complete the film and get it out into the world so that it can be a resource for countless families everywhere.
As always, I am happy to answer any questions when I do not have my hands full with my children. Thank you for reading.
“Unexpected Lead Expert”
P.S. I want to thank so many past members of the Board of Directors of LSAF for their unwavering faith and support during this time: Beth, Barbara, Howard, Kathy, Angela, Jerry, Judy, Paul and others!