Boston’s WGBH Swapped Fund-Raising Lists
With the Democratic National Committee
Possible Tax-Law Violation Uncovered by Wellesley Mother
July 2--Boston’s public television station, WGBH swapped its fund-raising list with the Democratic National Committee, a possible violation of tax laws. But it doesn’t look like the IRS is doing anything about it and WGBH isn’t saying much.
Angela Lifsey, WGBH director of media and community relations, said, “We’re a little embarrassed about it.” She explained that some new employees who made the swap had been unaware of the station’s policy against sharing lists with political or religious groups.
The incident was uncovered in May when a 5-year-old Wellesley boy received a fund-raising letter from the Democratic National Committee. The boy’s mother, Jody Black, had made a donation to WGBH in her and her son’s name last fall, which is how his name got on the station’s donor list and into the hands of the Democratic National Committee.
WGBH subsequently admitted that it exchanged part of its list of 225,000 donor names with the committee. WGBH is part of the Public Broadcasting System network and has a not-for-profit tax status. Black, a Republican, said she was initally appalled that WGBH shared her name with a political party. A former corporate attorney, Black said she immediately guessed that the list was exchanged after her son’s name, Sam, appeared on the material sent by the DNC.
WGBH and all not-for-profit corporations, referred to in legal circles as a 501 (c) (3), are prohibited from supporting any political or religious party. Republicans were not approached about exchanging lists with the television station. The station, not the committee, initiated the trade.
WGBH spokeswoman Leah Hollenberger said it was “simply a mistake.”
“Unfortunately in a staff transition some lists were swapped with the DNC,” she told Massachusetts News. “It did violate station policy and we are very sorry and apologetic it happened. Steps have been taken to make sure it will not happen again.” Those steps include “internal checks,” which Hollenberger did not detail. She said only that “their internal checks have been reexamined as part of an internal process.”
Hollenberger also refused to release the names of the WGBH employees who made the deal with the Democratic National Committee because, she said, “It is a personnel issue and we do not discuss personnel issues publicly.”
According to the IRS: “If a substantial part of the activities of an organization consists of carrying on propaganda or attempting to influence legislation, the organization’s exemption from federal income tax will be revoked. This includes any attempt to influence any legislation through an effort to affect the opinions of the general public or any segment thereof.”
Doug Fleming, a lawyer and chairman of the tax section of the Massachusetts Bar Association, told Massachusetts News that because WGBH has a special tax status where it does not pay income tax, the IRS could revoke that privilege if it is deemed that WGBH is deliberately supporting one political party or another by exchanging donor lists.
“Since this matter has been reported in a newspaper, I would not be surprised if the IRS has contacted the PBS affiliate regarding their not-for-profit status,” said Fleming. “If the IRS determines it was done by a low-level employee, that it was not intentional” by those who run the station, “it might just get a warning,” he said.
“It would be more serious if it was determined to be directed from the top, intentional and planned,” Fleming said. “The IRS might then end up revoking its non-profit tax status.” Peggy Riley, an IRS spokesman, told Massachusetts News, “We cannot confirm or deny the existence of any ongoing investigation. Privacy and disclosure laws will not allow us to disclose whether there is an investigation on nay taxpayer.”
Telephone calls to WGBH about whether the IRS had contacted the station were not returned before Massachusetts News went to press. (If an indictment is filed against WGBH by the IRS, it can be made public.) Also, Democratic National Committee officials did not return phone calls regarding the matter.
Lifsey said she is aware of consumers’ hatred of junk mail, but added, “It’s a standard industry practice for non-profits like WGBH to swap or rent lists to other groups in an effort to expand membership.” Renting names means the group can use WGBH names for one mailing only.
She said she is not aware of any other occasion when the station violated its mailing list policy.
After receiving an apologetic phone call from an official at WGBH, Jody Black says she plans to donate again to WGBH next year.
John Pike is a free-lance writer who lives in Lowell.
Is MassNews Responsible for "Whistleblowing" at WGBH
WGBH has Been Providing the Names of its Contributors to the Democratic National Committee
August 2--Many people are wondering if Massachusetts News is responsible for the "whistleblowing" into the conduct of WGBH and other public television stations across the country.
The revelation that WGBH has been providing the names of its contributors to the Democratic National Committee has created protests from many people. However, the significance of the story has been missed by most, according to some observers.
The most important thing, according to list brokers who sell lists of names, is that all organizations wish to buy the names of people who have similar tastes and attitudes. Therefore, the crucial point to notice is not whether WGBH broke any tax laws or ethical standards, but that they went to Democratic donors to raise their money, not to Republicans.
"This confirms that WGBH programming has a very liberal slant and is much closer with the beliefs of the Democrats, and they all know it," one list broker stated. "Otherwise, they would have wanted to get the names of Republicans, not Democrats."
The Vice President for Communications at WGBH, Jeanne Hopkins, confirmed that the Republicans were not approached for a list.
This endorses what many people have said for years, that the network has a liberal bias. A study of 73 PBS programs by the Media Research Center produced between 1990 and 1993 found that only two could be considered conservative.
Story Broke In Beginning of May
The story about WGBH first surfaced in the beginning of May, but it appeared only one time on the back pages of the Boston papers. It was a dead issue when Massachusetts News put it on the front page of its June edition, which was mailed to 170,000 homes across Massachusetts and to many conservatives and others in Washington.
The June edition was still being delivered to many homes in the middle of June. The story broke in Congress on Tuesday, July 13, which was well over a month after it was printed in the Boston papers and only a few days after it went to readers of Massachusetts News.
"There is no question that you had a lot to do with publicizing this story," one commentator stated.
Tried to Deny It
The original response from WGBH was to say that it was a mistake and it had only happened one time. It said that the mistake was made by a low-level employee, but it did not say who that employee was so that the statement could be verified. Then the Democratic National Committee revealed that it had been sharing information with WGBH for many years and not just one time as the station had claimed. It also said that the station approached it in 1993 and had been sharing names ever since.
It was then discovered that other PBS stations have also been exchanging names with the Democrats.
Meanwhile, the General Manager of the station, Jonathan Abbott, finally admitted that the Democrats were correct and it had been happening for years. But he denied any wrong-doing, i.e. no law had been broken and no ethical standard had been violated. He still did not reveal the name of the "low level employee."
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is warning all its member stations that it "does not condone the providing of the lists to partisan political organizations," but other observers find it difficult to believe that they did not know.
Because of the incident, it appears as though PBS may not receive the full funding it had originally expected from Congress.
The Publisher of Massachusetts News experienced the liberal bias of PBS when he appeared as a guest on its local radio station, WBUR, in January. He was a guest after writing his article about what is being taught in the schools of Massachusetts about homosexuality. His viewpoint was not popular with the liberals.
When he appeared as a guest, the interview was taped and then carefully edited to help the liberal slant before it was broadcast. In addition, it was apparent that the show had been discussed with the opposition guest beforehand. A transcript of the entire interview before and after the taping can be found here.
Some Congressmen say it is difficult to understand the need for a government-funded television and radio network which is obviously going to have a partisan point-of-view. They said that no one would favor creating a federal newspaper which would be obligated to the politicians. They wonder why a radio or television station would be any different.
The incident was uncovered when a 5-year-old Wellesley boy received a
fund-raising letter from the Democrats. The boy's mother, Jody Black, had
made a donation to WGBH in her and her son's name last fall, which is how
his name got on the station's list and into the hands of the Democratic
Letters to the editor:
1. Shocked By WGBH
I was shocked when I read the article in your July issue regarding WGBH exchanging its donor list with the Democratic National Committee.WGBH tries to explain away the incident by saying that the list swapping was a mistake made by a low level employee. If I remember correctly, a very similar explanation was given by the Clinton administration when 1,100 FBI files mysteriously turned up in the White House. I hope this matter is investigated thoroughly by the IRS and the appropriate action is taken.
– Denise Torraco
2. More on WGBH
Received issue number two. Enjoyed reading it. Only one question - how did John Pike miss the Diane Blair/Tyson Foods connection with Jim Blair/Hillary Clinton/$100,000 commodities trading profit? I'm sure you know Diane Blair is Mrs. Jim Blair and received a 6-year appointment as chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
-- Gladstone T. Whitman, Sea Girt, NJ