'U.S. Citizens' a good example of a 'charity' to beware of

Last week's column on Kiva and charities proved popular. So this week we're going to continue the theme, starting with the U.S. Citizens' Association's Web site and its commercials on cable TV.

Once you see either, it won't take long to figure out where the association's politics lie. But regardless of political persuasion -- and this association proudly proclaims the Wall Street Journal, not what you'd call a pillar of the liberal media, rejected its print ads -- spend a few minutes on its site, using the tools we've talked about in this column.

We'll try to persuade you there are worthier places to spend your charity dollars, and raise some questions you should ask about any non-profit you plan to give your money or time.

The association's pitch on this page gets the red meat on the table quickly, though it takes a while to get to the hook: "Make monetary contributions to the U.S. Citizens Association whenever you can. This will help get conservative capitalist information out to the public and support other mission objectives of the U.S. Citizens Association that will change government to benefit you." You can support the cause via PayPal or credit card. Membership is free, though, and donations are optional, as the association says on this page. It also proclaims its status as a non-profit organization, though tells little else about itself, such as how donations are spent, what percentage of donations go to payroll and office space and what percentage go to mission work.

The site doesn't tell you anything about the organization's staff, or who its director is, either. That's OK -- it doesn't have to. You already know non-profit organizations are exempt from paying taxes. But you may not know that in certain circumstances, they don't have to tell you much about anything they do -- that's the difference between a 501(c)(3) non-profit and a 501(c)(4). Most charities, from the Foundation for Sarcoidosis Research to the Humane Society of the U.S. are 3s. The tax code says 3s can do some lobbying on behalf of their mission, but the amount of money they can spend is limited. They also have to publicly disclose their financial information on the IRS Form 990.

That's not the case for 4s, though, which we presume the U.S. Citizens Association is. They can lobby with few restrictions, and don't have to tell you much of anything about what's going on back at the home office, if there even is one.

But wouldn't any good cause -- especially one with enough money to get its message on TV, which costs a lot even if it's only on Ion Television -- want to be open and transparent about itself? Not being transparent begs the question: whaddya got to hide?

Well, maybe something. The association's site is registered to a Lance Davis of Akron, Ohio, owner of Universal Marketing Industries, LLC, which, among other things, promotes the book "America's Snake Oil President," on the association's site. (The book's own Web site is registered to the "Omada Group;" Omada is Greek for "team" or "group," so their name translates as "Team Group," or "Group Group.")

Call Universal Marketing's phone number and you get an answering machine for the "Omada Group," which includes Omada's president, Todd Grable, and Matthew Palumbo, who marketed a movie documentary called "Perfect Valor," about the battle for U.S. control of the Iraqi city of Fallujah. He also made $1,000 in contributions to something called the Citizens United Political Victory Fund. Citizens United also happens to be the producer of Perfect Valor.

Among the many listed contributors to the film are Newt Gingrich, Regnery Publishing and a few others often characterized by the left as "right-wing conspirators." Perfect Valor is a perfect storm of people connected to the U.S. Citizens Association: Listed in the movie's credits are senior executives of the InfoCision Corporation, one of the largest call-center companies in the U.S., which, in its own words, specializes in "political, Christian and nonprofit fundraising." (In that great political slumgullion state of Ohio, one can imagine InfoCision being quite busy during the last three presidential contests.) Lance Davis had an eight-year career at InfoCision, according to his LinkedIn profile. Grable spent 15 years there, rising to senior VP of marketing, according to his.

So what's to learn here? Well, it doesn't sound like the U.S. Citizens Association is hurting for money, resources, or connections. Heck, InfoCision gave the University of Akron a $10 million donation, so now the beloved Akron Zips don their cleats at InfoCision Stadium. You might make the point that the Association isn't really a charity, rather, a kind of call-to-action among like-minded people.

Even so, shouldn't it be more upfront about its origins and connections? And who's paying for that TV airtime for the association's commercials? The faithful and their donations? Three guys in an Akron office building, two of whom worked for the same company at least four years?

When a Web site leaves simple questions like these unanswered, beware.
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