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Politics

Treasure Coast Environmental Group Slapped with IRS Deceptive Practices Complaint

July 26, 2015 - 12:15am
J.P. Sasser and Kevin Henderson
J.P. Sasser and Kevin Henderson

The former mayor of Pahokee has filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service against the litigation arm of perhaps the largest environmental group on Florida's Treasure Coast.

James "J.P." Sasser claims the Stuart-based Rivers Coalition Defense Fund, organized as a 501(c)3 corporation, has violated seven of the nine criteria for maintaining its tax-exempt status. He believes the corporation's officials should answer for what he calls "a deceptive and nontransparent fundraising scheme."

Sasser admits he has been studying the group since the middle of 2013 and is perplexed by its relationship with its parent organization the Rivers Coalition and the thousands of dollars the two groups raise virtually interchangeably.

He told Sunshine State News, "The Rivers Coalition board members are out there pushing their political agenda, pushing the things they want to see happen in Tallahassee. That's what people are giving money to. ... It's obvious they don't want you to know the difference between the Rivers Coalition and the Rivers Coalition Defense Fund. Or that the money is going to pay for a lawsuit ... some day. Tax-exempt organizations are supposed to operate under strict rules."

Meanwhile, Kevin Henderson, president of the Defense Fund -- and himself a former small-city mayor (Stuart in the 1990s) -- looked at the complaint and replied, "I think Mr. Sasser is full of (**it). I'm not going to waste my time or the organization's time messing with him on this."

The Rivers Coalition was formed in 1998 by "distraught business and environmental groups (that understood) the importance of the (St. Lucie) estuary to the local economy," according to the organization's website.  At present, the Rivers Coalition represents 62 member organizations.

The Rivers Coalition spun the Defense Fund off eight years later after the string of damaging hurricanes that swept through Florida in 2004 and 2005. The Fund was incorporated in 2006 to be tax-exempt under 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue Service Code. It was created as a vehicle to file a lawsuit against the federal government for discharging ecology-changing Lake Okeechobee water into local waterways. The suit and consequent appeal, however, were unsuccessful.

Sasser claims the organizations' board members are deliberately trying to deceive the people of Martin County, who think they're giving to help clean up or protect or restore the St. Lucie River, but "they're only holding onto it for the next lawsuit.

"When you look through their fundraising efforts you see both Rivers Coalition and Rivers Coalition Defense Fund," he says. "It depends on who they are seeking donations from. ... I think this is done deliberately to throw the hounds off the scent of what is really going on. Which is self-enrichment."

By 501(c)3 rules, private individuals are not supposed to profit from the organization's business. Sasser said the lawsuit names a number of wealthy waterfront landowners, at least one of whom is a current board member. "Had the court held for the 24 named plaintiffs -- all generous donors -- they would have been repaid handsomely," he said.

But Henderson, who is also president of Evergreen Engineering Inc. in Stuart,  calls Sasser's complaint "some kind of made-up B.S" and his claim that anyone could have gotten rich from the lawsuit "the most absurd thing of all."

"Everyone who signed up to be part of that lawsuit also signed a document saying that any money won would go straight to the Rivers Coalition to benefit the estuary," he said. "That document has been made part of the suit, it's airtight."

In describing the "nature of the violation," against the Defense Fund, Sasser claims in his complaint:

-- Directors/officers/persons are using income/assets for personal gain. He is pointing to the lawsuit plaintiffs, as mentioned above.

-- Organization is involved in a political campaign. Sasser says Rivers Coalition board members, even during their meetings, routinely talk about "working against any candidates who take sugar money." Henderson says the Defense Fund board and the Rivers Coalition board are separate. And, anyway, how individuals feel is their own business. The point is, the Rivers Coalition Defense Fund takes no position, claims Henderson.

-- Organization refused to disclose or provide a copy of Form 990. The organization's website says the donations it collected each year are "under $50,000," meaning its treasurer only needs to file a postcard IRS form. "But that would include even 2013," said Sasser, "the year when river problems were at their worse and residents were shoveling money into the organization. Weekend after weekend they were staging events. There's no accounting of any of that money." Replied Henderson, "I don't know what we agreed to provide to Mr. Sasser. I believe we provided him with everything we gave to the IRS."  

-- Organization failed to report employment, income, or excise tax liability properly. "This is a corporation without a salaried employee?" asks Sasser. "No way of telling."

-- Organization failed to file required federal tax returns and forms. Sasser believes the organization and its "hazy fundraising affliliation" with the Rivers Coalition has collected more money than it claims and therefore should be filing on other forms.

-- Organization engaged in deceptive or improper fundraising practices. "The people of Martin County think they're giving to clean up their rivers. They give money to the Rivers Coalition and it goes to the Defense Fund and sits in the bank waiting for a lawsuit. ... They have been and still are a political group that filed one lawsuit so that their members and friends could win monetary compensation," Sasser told the IRS in his complaint.

-- Organization does not make available financial records as required for a nonprofit; accepts donations under various entities; paricipates in activities that are against IRS rules for a nonprofit. "There is no financial report on their website," says Sasser. "Wouldn't you think they would want everybody to know how much support they're getting and how close they are to reaching their goals?" In response, Henderson says, "Nobody else has ever asked to see a financial report, not one community member. Only Mr. Sasser." 

Henderson said he's not certain if Sasser is just "a wing-nut who doesn't want to listen to the facts" or is hiding another agenda. Why else, he wondered, would a former mayor of Pahokee be fighting against an organization that only wants to "save our river"?

"They think my agenda is doing the bidding of Big Sugar," Sasser said. "That's what they always say about people who don't march in their parade."

Sasser told Sunshine State News emphatically that he is not employed or contracted by any Big Sugar concern.

"I was born and raised in the Glades," he said. "Our reason for existing is agriculture. It is the driving force of what little economy we have left. No matter what you do for a living in the Glades, there is still a thread connecting you to agriculture."

Sugar producers in the Glades aren't all U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals, Sasser said. "There's also the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative in Belle Glade, made up of all of our small local farmers. It is these small farmers and their families I grew up with, went to school with, still attend church with. At least a dozen of these families are members of my church. Now factor in all of the Glades people who work for USSC and Florida Crystals and it should be very clear where my heart is.

"In my nine years as mayor of Pahokee I earned the reputation and respect in both Tallahassee and Washington of being a fierce fighter for the Glades. Nothing has changed."

Sasser said his involvement in Rivers Coalition/Rivers Coalition Defense Fund business is directly connected to the summer of 2013, when residents of Martin County, encouraged by the Rivers Coalition and Stuart newspaper, "were talking about taking some of our land in the Glades to create a flowway. It was OK with them if we were flooded out, if our livelihood was flooded out, as long as they could protect their property value. 

"That's where my interest came from. And the more I looked, the more it seemed like the organization was hoodwinking the hundreds and thousands of people supporting it."

 Of all the alleged IRS violations, what does Sasser believe is the most egregious? He replied, "It enrages me that this group is so money-hungry that they consistently exploit a critical environmental issue by deliberately encouraging the spread of misinformation along with hatred and mistrust of the Glades agricultural communities."

Said Henderson, "Instead of giving this guy credence here, I think I'd just like to see the IRS sort it all out and leave it at that."

A spokeswoman for the IRS said she could not predict how long it will take to investigate the complaint but that the agency won't discuss it until the investigation is complete.

 

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith

Comments

Aging cougar Sally Swartz wrote about this today. Her latest treat, kenny drunkle jr, is supposedly fighting back from his place of hiding in Pittsburg. Check his finances. follow the money.

I need to clarify my previous comments concerning algae blooms in Lake Okeechobee. The point I am trying to make is that the algae blooms that do occur in the Lake tend to be near the Kissimmee River and in the central to northern areas of the Lake . NOT at the southern end. Also in 2013 at the height of the blooms in the lagoon there were no huge blooms in the lake. I have said for years the water at the mouth of the Kissimmee River and the St. Lucie River needs to be tested simultaneously with the water in the Lagoon. As well as the Caloosahatchee.

In 2013 there was a huge amount of rain fall. It was this rainfall that outed the septic tanks . If Lake Okeechobee is the single source for the pollution in the lagoon how come there are no corresponding huge algae blooms in the Lake ? Why aren't they there all the time ? In addition If you are a believer that sugar is the culprit why do you look only at the south end of the lake when there are thousands of acres of sugar being grown in Martin Co? Now explain how the sugar industry made River's Coalition Defense Fund bamboozle the citizens of Martin Co. How did a $ 20,000 donation from Paul Tudor Jones between 2011 and 2012 not show up in their IRS 990 forms published in an article in TC Palm ?

Grande states in his rant above that they have open meetings at Rivers Coalition. And he is 100% correct. However, it is Rivers Coalition Defense Fund that has the money, no meetings and no financial reporting. These people act as if they are not under same IRS constraints as everyone else. I guess it is the Martin County difference. If they cannot keep the two groups straight in talking..... What about record keeping? The public needs to know what their $1 million is going for other than sending Kenny Hinkle jr on trips to Key Largo resorts and trips to Pittsburg to keep him away from reporters. Follow the drunk... It leads to the money trail and the shadowy truth.

Good ol chas seems to serve on the money end of a lot of boards. Hibiscus is another one. Scary

Chuck was President during the time in question. He also sits on Conservation Alliance Board, marine Industry Council, South Beach Association and most recently failed at attempt to gain county commission seat in St Lucie County, where as Former Commissioner, he signed off on Crosstown Bridge project to connect Port St Lucie with the Narrows on A1A, cutting through 2 Preserves where his real estate group have holdings.

Wasn't Charles Grande president of the RC Defense Fund?

Charles there is no record anywhere with the State of Florida (SunBiz)of the Rivers Coalition ever existing. The only thing that has a record is River's Coalition Defense Fund. Yet on your web site it clearly states Rivers Coalition LLC. Is this a lie ? Rivers Coalition Defense Fund is now your legal arm ? Really ? Now you guys are claiming that you are on board with fertilizer regulations and converting from septic tanks to sewer with Leon Abood clearly stating at one meeting that everyone needed to ignore these issues because they were an attempt by sugar to "distract us". Again I fully encourage those that seek the truth to simply do their homework and research the facts. A great start would be to completely to go over the Rivers Coalition website. From the " review our financials " which there are none - to the you tube videos of your meetings and where you claim to be an LLC. The pro Rivers Coalition crowd can call me everything but a child of God. You can attack One Florida Foundation till the cows come home andI don't give a rat's backside what you call sugar - not one bit of it takes away from the fact that Rivers Coalition has been hood winking the citizens on Martin County for years and the last thing on their agenda is a healthy river and lagoon. Because if they were healthy there would be no money. One last thing - what were the results of the DNA testing of the fecal material found in the lagoon ?

I have heard Charles Grande say... "Septic tanks are just a distraction". Have it in print and on video. Charles Grande and the RC hate and abuse anyone who does note repeat the montra " Send it South". "We hate Sugar" One Florida believes in storage NSEW just like the University of Florida Study says. Thats enough for the likes of Grande and Kenny Hinkle to slander them. Don't take my word for it. Go look at their site. The RC Fraud has got to stop so we can work on REALLY cleaning our water.

JP you can't seriously accuse anyone else of "fanning the flames of hatred .....". Clearly, that's what your baseless complaint to the IRS was all about. As for science, when we have discharges from the lake, our waterways go bad, even to the extent of becoming toxic. When we have an extended period without lake discharges, no matter how much local runoff or septic tank leakage we experience, our waterways improve significantly. The only reason we suffer discharges from the lake is your friends at Big Sugar continue to block the natural flow south causing the discharges east and west. We are continually working to control and improve local runoff and we are working to improve the septic problems while you and your cohorts at OFF and Big Sugar do nothing except trying to delude the public with false advertising, and baseless complaints. The Sugar Summit was open to all, including you. You are invited and do attend and participate in the Rivers Coalition meetings. Let me know when OFF has a Board meeting open to the public as ours are. Let me know when Big Sugar agrees to discuss the problems that plague us, with a willingness to consider possibly participating in solutions rather than divisive attacks. On the other hand, you can just keep fanning, that seems to keep your cohorts happy.

I have stated repeatedly that people need to educate themselves to the truth. Rather than wasting your time reading about U.S Sugar in the paper as Mr. Grande suggests why doesn't everyone read the published scientific data that firmly lays the blame on septic tanks and local run off. Also you will learn that the most serious environmental damage to the lagoon is in the NORTH end. The discharges from Lake Okeechobee enter the lagoon at the SOUTH end. I do not speak for the sugar industry - I only speak for myself - educate yourselves with solid scientific facts. Fanning the flames of hatred and distrust of sugar accomplishes nothing for the good of our state's waters. It only helps with donations to a group that spends nothing to clean up the lagoon.

Nice headline Nancy. Only the complaint was NOT by the IRS. US Sugar (OFF) minion Sasser filed it, and now the IRS will have to waste time and money investigating. Why don't we all just wait for the IRS to complete it's investigation before joining in Sasser's histrionics. Here's a thought. We can pass the time reading the paid propaganda US Sugar is placing is almost every day's TC Palm newspapers and try to spot the few truths sprinkled in among the many lies.

If there is tax fraud it will come out. As tax payers we should thank Mr Sasser. These groups need to be held accountable.

The last time I saw Mr. Sasser was at a Rivers Coalition meeting. He identified himself as being from the One Florida Foundation. ..

Members of the RC have gone on record in many venues saying 'Its Big Sugar ... Not our septic tanks" That can be proven. Everyone has a cell phone that records these days. they even attack people who talk about fixing the septic tanks in other counties. Those discharges are not a problem in my county. Septic tanks are. It will be interesting to see what happens with this.

Most of the commenters don't have the foggiest notion of what they're talking about. Gayle Ryan and Cyndi Lenz seem to have a handle on it. Martin County is the one blocking replacing septic tanks. Not the Rivers Coalition.

This is real wrong, Mr. Guy. Mr. Henderson is a big part of the blockage. I sat in on a meeting and heard Mr. Henderson tell the room big sugar is pushing central sewage as the answer but it is NOT the cause of the pollution, ag runoff is. He is an engineer who is telling people septic tanks do very little harm to our rivers.

Some people have asked for their financial records. The fund raising just doesn't add up to the tax reports. They don't give out financial information. Go ahead and ask. See what you get told. Then look up the 10 best rules to follow before giving to a nonprofit. They won't get anymore of my money. Anyone supporting them also won't get any.

Let the "sunshine" in,...It's healthy ! (If the flawed Federal IRS remembers HOW to do it..)

I cannot wait to see the results of this investigation. Many of us have been questioning where these funds go. Thank you Mr Strasser!! Maybe now we will get real answers

I think both sides have good points here. I do believe Martin county could use a real sewer system. I think we should support the farmers out west. The ACOE is supposed to take care of the lake. Why hasn't it been fixed? We all live here none of us want to see it ruined. Farmers have always played a big part in the state. We used to be the winter vegetable capital. Think we were number 2 in Dairy. Florida isn't all beaches and sand. JMO

Sorry for the typos, but this issue has me hot. God forbid Martin County get with the program and actually have a sew system built. Maybe the RC could donate some of their monies to this. Heck even po dunk Pahokee has a working sewer system!

Please explain, RC, just how 300,000 + septic tanks isn't the problem? Did you know water doesn't run up hill? Did you know that, after testing, it was determined that the water in Glades canals is cleaner than rain water. It was fecal matter in the estuaries. I know for a fact NO farm whatsoever uses human poop foe anything! !!! Next time you Treasure coast well to do's use a grain of sugar, eat a vegetable, etc etc do me a favor. THANKS A FARMER!

it was not human shiit it was cow shiit -- sugar is an addictive cancer causing grain--keep it -- and quit feeding us that gmo insect dna crap. -- praise the organic farmer who loves our planet over politics and money power -- go green start a garden today -- be your own farmer organically!! live longer --be happy

I being a Pahokee resident totally agree with Mr.Sasser clean up your on backyard first before blaming the Glades,look to the North .

diversion at its purest -- does anyone who owns and loves a salt water aquarium tank with fish dump 10 gallons of polluted with bacteria fresh water in it every week? i dont think so, well, this is what is happening on the coasts -- when the locks are open the turtles dolphins manatees have to vanish their breeding grounds -- think if they were adding million of salt water to the lake -- i am sure you and all the bass fisherman would love it!l

Cyndi you need to be having this conversation with Rivers Coalition . I am not going to sit quietly and listen to a RC board member say all of the poor people in the Glades need to be put behind a wall so the water levels in the Lake can be raised knowing full well it will destroy the lake's ecology. It is hard to develop you marina when RC is constantly yelling about the dirty nasty polluted water in the Lake. They can not raise donations unless they are putting down the Glades. Try to get them to talk about the effects of local run off and septic tanks - you can't . Face it a healthy Indian River Lagoon and St. Lucie River will kill them financially .

AGREED

J.P. The discharges have stopped and the lagoon is pristine. So please stop with that. It's a bunch of BS. Isn't it time for you to move forward. The issue with Big Sugar is going to work itself out with the likes of the Heritage Foundation. Are they an issue? Yes. Are they the only issue. NO. Is there something that could be done? Yes. Maybe a few years ago when we all went in peace to the Sugarland Rally instead of staying home the people came out to talk and we looked at solutions together things would be different today. Your friends are going to need some allies. We all understand that these are your friends and you want to help them but this is not the way. The way is to look at sustainable solutions to the issue and to stop playing games. Instead of a frivolous lawsuit why not start a conversation. We did. We had a big sugar summit. It was an amazing day and we all learned a lot. If you were not there its all posted on my blog. I happened to be in Pahokee and really you need to help the people out there. They are so awesome and that downtown in pretty awful. Why not spend the time rejuvenating it? It has so much potential.

Yes Pahokee does look bad but unlike the other towns that keep growing , it is time we get some help with Lake Okeechobees needs to help us do something other than be sure all of south fla has water. Channels need cleaned Mariana needs fixed, etc..we are tired of taken the blame for everyone else's wants. We are not a holding tank for everyone else and not the problem get off septic tanks. I agree with JP Sasser on his comments.

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