All In The Family Part 3
In The Progressive America Fund, Another Tax-Exempt Entity That Shares Working Families Staff And Provides The Basis For Its MissionBy Edward-Isaac Dovere
The Working Families Organization’s 2009 lobbying records also demonstrate relationships among the Party, the Organization and the Progressive America Fund—and not just through what were, until recently, common offices.
One of the two branches of the Fund is the Center for Working Families, a think tank founded in 2006 with co-directors Deirdre Schifeling, a former deputy director of the Party and listed lobbyist of the Organization, and Lisa Donner, a former Service Employees International Union and ACORN staffer.
Currently, the Center’s interim director is listed as David Palmer who has been identified in news articles as also being the legislative campaigns director for the Party. This makes him an employee of a 501 (c)4, a 501 (c)3 and a political party, all at once.
The Center’s policy researcher, Altaf Rahamatulla, and the Center’s senior policy organizer, Emmaia Gelman, are also listed on the Organization’s 2009 lobbying records. Jason Angell, the former Center director, is also listed as an Organization lobbyist and as having given testimony on behalf of the Working Families Party to the State Senate Aging Committee in March. (Only one currently listed employee of the Center, senior policy advisor Chloe Tribich, does not appear on Organization lobbying records.)
Party spokesman Dan Levitan said all employees who are on staff with multiple entities are paid separately by each.
What the Party website refers to as “the WFP’s favorite think tank,” until recently also listed 2-4 Nevins Street as its address (it now lists its as 305 West 44th Street in Manhattan, the building of the Hotel Trades Council, a major Organization member). On its website, the Center says its purpose is “to bring innovative ideas into the public debate, to provide elected leaders with the research support to make bold policy proposals, and to strategize with organizations and activists to build effective campaigns to enact them.” But the Center’s connections go beyond common employees and real estate: among the people on its 2006-2007 advisory board are current White House political director Patrick Gaspard, Working Families Party co-chair Bob Master and Jon Kest, director of ACORN’s New York office who also serves as the secretary of the Party. Brad Lander, who won Bill de Blasio’s Brooklyn Council seat with help from an early Party endorsement and Data & Field Services contract, is another board member, as is Karen Scharff, the executive director of Citizen Action and the president of the Working Families Organization.
Several Center policy papers, including those on Green Jobs/Green Homes legislation, property tax relief and paid family leave, are presented on the Working Families Party’s website as “background documents for endorsements.”
The other branch of the Progressive America Fund is the National Open Ballot Project. That entity drew headlines in the days before the primary with news that it hired de Blasio—who won this year’s public advocate race with heavy Working Families support and one of the biggest Data & Field Services contracts—to promote the expansion of fusion voting in other states. De Blasio’s expected duties entailed meeting with editorial boards, party and elected officials, donors, foundations and advocacy organizations.
The National Open Ballot Project serves as a resource across the country, providing support, official testimony and information to journalists and others interested in fusion voting initiatives it is backing in other states, without any official link between these efforts and the benefits to the Working Families Party. Josh Mason, a former policy director for the Working Families Party, worked as a legislative director for the National Open Ballot Project.
As the Daily News first reported, when de Blasio was getting clearance for the lobbying in 2006, he told Council lawyer Elizabeth Fine that the Fund shared an address with the Party and that a Fund board member—Dan Cantor—worked for the Party. (Council spokesman Jamie McShane confirmed that this had been said to Fine.)
However, responding to questions directed at Cantor about his involvement with the Fund, Dan Levitan said that Cantor had in fact not been a member of the Board for five years—an account supported by Fund secretary Jim Fleischmann. De Blasio spokeswoman Mollie Meikle said, “Bill knew Dan had been on the board in the past and incorrectly thought that he still was at the time,” when told of these statements.
Indeed, Cantor does not appear on any of the Fund’s recent tax forms—not in response to any of the questions asking for officers, directors, trustees or key employees. But the Progressive America Fund 2005 returns do show other Working Families connections: the president of the Fund is listed as Bob Master, the secretary is Sam Williams and the treasurer is Bertha Lewis.
According to the Fund’s 2005 tax return, which was signed by Lewis in her role as treasurer and prepared by South Carolina accountant Steve Short (who also prepared the 2006 tax returns for the Working Families Organization and received multiple payments over the years from the Working Families Party), the group spent $577,000 of its $700,000 in funding on get-out-the-vote (GOTV) operations.
Those returns also show the Fund spending $15,000 on “voter files/matching/polling.”
Speaking on behalf of the Fund, Fleischman explained that these voter files were bought to support polling that the Fund conducted.
“We polled in a few states beginning in 2005 and 2006 (Ohio, Missouri, Washington, Maine, and Oregon) in order to gauge voter attitudes towards democratic reform initiatives,” wrote Fleischmann in an email.
Fleischmann is one of three officers listed on the Fund’s 2006 and 2007 tax returns, with former Party staffer Elissa Berger listed as president and former ACORN staffer Joanne Wright listed as treasurer. Fleischmann said that Wright has been replaced by Don Schaefer, and that the Board is currently looking for an executive director.[Click here to read sidebar: Though Not Employed By WFP Anymore, Deep WFP And ACORN Connections For Progressive America Fund Leadership]
While the Fund’s returns showed no money spent on rent pointing 2005 for the offices shared with the Working Families Party and the Working Families Organization, the Fund’s 2007 tax return lists almost $66,000 spent on rent.
But the biggest charge by far reported on the Fund’s 2007 filings is the nearly $580,000 spent on “co-employee expenses.”
Corinne Locke, though not included on the officers list, signed the Fund’s 2007 returns as the assistant treasurer—the same title she used when signing the returns of the Party and the Organization that year.
Locke was also identified in a 2008 online voting guide in Oregon as providing information on behalf of the National Open Ballot Project in support of fusion voting, and has also identified herself as the CFO of the Working Families Organization on other tax forms, and as the Working Families Party’s director of finance on letters to the Federal Elections Commission about the Party’s federal account.
According to Levitan, Locke is in fact the CFO of both the Party and the Organization, and is empowered to act as assistant treasurer for both by virtue of those positions. Levitan said Locke is paid separately by each.
Likewise, Levitan said that the Organization and Party paid separately for the services provided by George Short, the man whose stamped signature appears on all three sets of 2007 returns as the preparer.
In total, the signature lines on the 2007 tax returns for the Fund, the Party and the Organization are nearly identical, down to the date.
Those looking to verify each return could all turn to one person: the 2007 tax returns for the Fund, the Working Families Organization and the Working Families Party all list that their books are in the care of Kissima Sylla. Sylla appears in listings elsewhere as an administrative/finance staffer for the Party.
Levitan said Sylla was a bookkeeper paid separately by each entity for his services.
The staff overlap was so deep that even Asher Ross, the database administrator for the Party, served as the Fund’s contact with the New York State Geographic Systems Information Clearinghouse, a non-profit, government-sponsored data sharing initiative.
And some of Fund’s financial supporters were the same as those for the Working Families Organization, including the biggest single named donation from 2006 (visible on a “Donations by Deposit” form filed with the state attorney general’s office): $200,000 from the Open Society Institute of billionaire philanthropist George Soros. Soros also wrote a $150,000 personal check to the Working Families Organization that year. Those donations are far larger than the $94,200 limit that the Working Families Party is bound to hold to under state law.[Click here to read sidebar: Among Sources For Progressive America Fund Donations, Common Friends And Email Addresses]
Though Not Employed By WFP Anymore, Deep WFP And ACORN Connections For Progressive America Fund Leadership
Jim Fleischmann himself first shows up on the Fund’s tax returns in 2006 as part of a full leadership shift. On that form, despite the Fund’s address still being listed as 2-4 Nevins Street in Brooklyn, Wisconsin resident Elissa Berger is listed as the president and Brooklyn resident Joanne Wright is listed as the treasurer. Fleischmann, a Montana resident, is listed as the secretary.
Like the officers on the Fund’s 2005 return, each of the 2006 officers reports working an average of 0 hours per week in these positions, despite overseeing a non-profit which brought in $1.2 million over the course of the year and spent $991,000. The 2006 returns indicate a shift away from GOTV activities. The biggest single expense for that year was reported as $692,000 for education outreach.
While the president, secretary and treasurer listed on the Progressive America Fund’s 2006 tax returns were no longer the Party co-chairs, the new officers had deep Party connections of their own.
Berger, the president, spent several years as a political organizer and director of operations at the Working Families Party. Though she now works as the coordinator for the Milwaukee Energy Efficiency project at the Center of Wisconsin Strategy, she also clerked for Judge Michael Chagares of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit and was a student at Brooklyn Law School, from which she graduated in 2006. Berger’s time in school and as a clerk was all while serving as the president of the Fund, which was operating with an almost $1 million dollar budget that year.
Fleischmann, the treasurer, is currently the state director of the Service Employee International Union (SEIU)’s Montana Change That Works Campaign. Before that, he worked as the campaign manager for Montana Sen. Max Baucus, chair of the Senate Finance Committee. He moved there from Massachusetts, where he had spent 2006 as one of the lead people in an effort to bring Working Families Party-backed fusion voting to the state through his position on the Massachusetts Working Families Party organizing committee. This all followed years serving as a political organizer at ACORN.
Wright, the Fund secretary, was the national deputy political director for ACORN for 10 years. During that time, she helped run Project Vote, the ACORN-affiliate which drew scrutiny for questions raised over fake registrations collected on behalf of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign last year. Wright now consults as the fundraising coordinator for a Michigan-based grassroots collaboration group called State Voices, which includes a bio of her on its website that lists the Fund as one of her past clients, not as a group for which she served as secretary.
With these three all still reporting working an average of 0 hours per week on the 2007 returns, the Fund reported just over $800,000 in new money received and expenses of $974,000, apparently drawing on money left over from previous years.
According to tax records, more funding for the Progressive America Fund came from a $100,000 grant from the Tides Foundation, a San Francisco-based entity which has given grants as well to the Working Families Organization and ACORN in subsequent years, allowing yet another funding stream to be tapped at least in part thanks to the Fund’s officially separate status. (Tides is not alone in this: in 2006, for example, the Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut gave $5,000 to the Fund for something called the Working Families’ Healthcare Organizing Project, while also giving $63,000 to the Connecticut Working Families Party for an outreach and mobilization project to “educate people about universal health care through communication and outreach efforts.”)
The Tides Foundation is also home to the Institute for Global Communications, another blandly titled organization which provides communications services and email addresses for several involved in this conglomeration of organizations, including Dan Cantor, Kissima Sylla, Jim Fleischmann and George Short, according to various listings.
The organizations providing much of the money to the Progressive America Fund seem to have a very clear purpose in mind when writing the checks, whether it is the $75,000 which came from the Justice, Equality, Human Dignity and Tolerance Foundation (since closed, a victim of Bernard Madoff) in 2005 for “analyzing the value and effects of fusion voting as it is currently practiced in New York State, and to undertake a feasibility study of the prospects for reintroducing fusion voting in states where it is not presently legal,” or the $35,000 grant from the Rockefeller Family Fund for “support to advance fusion voting in three states—Maine, Oregon, and New Mexico.”