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 firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith