Did Councilman Misrepresent Charity?

Cameron McWhirter, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 27, 2007

For the past five years, Atlanta City Councilman H. Lamar Willis has solicited donors for a foundation he says he created to give scholarships to Atlanta students. The H. Lamar Willis Foundation has told major corporations—which have contributed tens of thousands of dollars—that donations are tax-deductible because it is a federally approved nonprofit.

But it’s not, and it never has been.

The Internal Revenue Service says it has no record of the organization registering as a nonprofit or submitting required annual reports showing how it has raised and spent its money. The Georgia Secretary of State’s Office also has no record of the foundation ever registering as a charity or a nonprofit corporation, as required by state law.

Willis, an attorney, has refused to provide The Atlanta Journal-Constitution with a list of donors or recipients of the money. Of the donors mentioned on the foundation Web site, many are companies doing business at the airport, which Willis helps oversee as a member of the City Council’s transportation committee. Companies include Coca-Cola, Comcast, AirTran, Target and Turner Construction, among others.

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The two-term councilman said the foundation’s financial paperwork “was not as concise and correct as it should be, I’ll admit that.”

In that interview, Willis said he planned to consult with an accountant and then meet with a reporter July 18 to review the foundation’s finances. Since then, Willis has not returned repeated AJC telephone calls and e-mails. Since Willis spoke to the AJC, material has been removed from the foundation’s Web site, including assertions that donations to the foundation are tax-deductible.

What the feds require

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Bruce Hopkins, an attorney and expert on nonprofits from Kansas City, Mo., said he was “incredulous” when told Willis’ foundation was not registered as a nonprofit with the IRS.

“All these things are being violated on so many levels. Then you throw in the fact that he is an attorney and an elected official, and you sort of don’t know where to begin,” said Hopkins, the author of “Starting and Managing A Nonprofit Organization.”

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Donors, who gave to the foundation in good faith, likely would not face penalties, Hopkins said.

Donors get assurances

Though Willis has refused to speak to the AJC after the initial brief interview, he did speak with donors who contacted him after they were called by the AJC. Andy Macke, senior director of government and community affairs for Comcast’s Atlanta region, said Willis assured him all the donations went to scholarships but said he was having “paperwork issues.” Macke said Willis told him he had hired an accountant to show donors how the money had been spent.

As many as 95 Atlanta Public Schools students received scholarship money over five years, according to the foundation’s Web site, but it does not provide a list of names. APS did not respond to a request for comment.

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The foundation brings in the bulk of its donations from a corporate golf outing held every August. On a video posted on the Web site, an announcer states that at least one year the golf outing raised more than $50,000. The foundation Web site states that it has distributed more than $150,000 in five years, but it does not provide a breakdown of who gave donations and how the money was spent. In his one conversation with the AJC, Willis estimated the figure at between $100,000 and $150,000, but he said he was not sure exactly how much the foundation had brought in.

In addition, the line between the foundation and Willis’ political office has been blurry.

The IRS requires that approved nonprofits must “refrain from participating in the political campaigns of candidates for local, state, or federal office” and “must not operate for the benefit of private interests such as those of its founder, the founder’s family, its shareholders or persons controlled by such interests.”

Lines of separation blur

Willis is the only Atlanta council member to have a self-named foundation connected to his city Web site. Applicants for the H. Lamar Willis Foundation scholarship are instructed on brochures to call the councilman’s staff or send inquiries to his City Hall office address.

The foundation’s logo, set on a yellow background, centers on the word “Willis” in bright blue lettering. It is the same format as his campaign literature. The Web site says: “The Foundation’s values mirror those of Councilman Willis—tenacity, integrity, courage, self-esteem and drive for excellence—qualities he strives to foster in Atlanta’s youngsters.”

“You could say I have benefited politically, I suppose, but I can’t tell you how much,” Willis said in the July 16 interview.

Sponsors of the golf outing often have been corporations that bring business before City Council’s transportation committee, which Willis has served on during his entire tenure in office and formerly chaired. One of the committee’s main duties is overseeing the city Department of Aviation, which operates Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. The airport was a sponsor of the golf outing in 2004, according to the foundation Web site. So were other companies, including engineering firms doing work at the airport, airport concessionaires and car rental agencies. Benjamin DeCosta, the airport’s general manager, declined to comment for this article.

This year’s lead sponsors for the outing are AirTran; Global Concessions, an Atlanta company that handles food court operations at Hartsfield-Jackson; and AmericasMart, which hosts conventions downtown.

Officials at all three companies said Willis asked for donations. Tad Hutcheson, AirTran spokesman, said the company has sponsored the golf outing with “some cash and some tickets.” Hutcheson would not put a value on the donation. He said AirTran did not check Willis’ nonprofit status. The company doesn’t have time to check the legal status of every charity, since it gets about 250 such requests a week, he said.

Terry Harps, Global Concessions president and founder, said in the past two years his company has donated about $10,000 to Willis’ foundation, using money earmarked for local charities. He said he assumed the foundation was a legal nonprofit.

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Willis

Councilman H. Lamar Willis.

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