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Photograph by Dan Pulcrano

Now You Seem 'Em: Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins heads two organizations prone to evasive habits.

Hide and Seek

Playing find-the-documents with the valley's cagey labor council

By Najeeb Hasan

WORKING PARTNERSHIPS USA, the valley's trailblazing labor-oriented, social-justice charity, seems to have difficulty when it comes to following public document laws. Metro learned as much after a simple request for the organization's 2002 Form 990, a federal tax form that details how the organization raises and spends its tax-free $3 million budget, much of it raised from charitable foundations. Not-for-profits are required to make the form available to anyone who asks for it, and most do. But Working Partnerships is acting like a group that has something to hide.

Indeed, a call to Working Partnerships for the tax documents snowballed from a routine public-information request to a seemingly pointless, drawn-out soap opera involving lawyers, double talk and stalling mechanisms. And they have yet to cough up the goods.

After discovering on Jan. 14 that the IRS had still not received Working Partnership's 2002 Form 990, Metro approached the organization to obtain the paperwork. Told the tax form was late because the organization had hired new accountants--a legitimate reason for extension under IRS guidelines--Metro agreed to cool its jets until the paperwork could be completed. We then made an additional request for the 2002 Form 990 of its sister group, South Bay Labor Council, which shares office space and accountants with Working Partnerships.

In mid-February, Metro was notified that the 990 for SBLC--but not for Working Partnerships--was ready at the organizations' offices. On Friday, March 5, at 9:40am, Metro received an email from Tia Williams-Sion, the in-house accountant for both organizations, advising, "The SBLC 990 has been waiting for you for over three weeks." A response inquiring about the status of the Working Partnerships Form 990 went unanswered.

Three days later, during a March 8 interview, Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, executive director of both the Labor Council and Working Partnerships, told Metro that both 990s--not just the SBLC 990--had been waiting at the offices for more than three weeks as of March 5--a statement contrary to correspondence received from her accountant. However, when a Metro reporter, visiting the organizations' offices for an interview, asked Ellis-Lamkins for the documents supposedly waiting, Ellis-Lamkins advised that the tax forms were no longer available.

In an email dated March 19, Ellis-Lamkins again contradicted her accountant by claiming that the Working Partnerships 990 had indeed been available for three weeks. "I am sorry that you were unable to pick up the documents over the three-week period that they were available," Ellis-Lamkins wrote before referring any future questions to a very busy attorney. "We will not be responding to any further requests." An emailed reminder to Ellis-Lamkins that "990 tax forms are not documents that nonprofits could arbitrarily make available one day and unavailable the next" went unacknowledged by the labor council director.

Indeed, Metro's position is supported by IRS spokesman Bill Steiner. "They should be willing to give it to you right away," he says. "It's public information [if it's filed]. I think what the law specifically states is that it has to be made available--they could ask you to come get it--but it has to be available upon request. If you asked me for it, I should be able to make it available for you."

On March 19, Metro contacted Bill Sokol, attorney for the labor council and Working Partnerships, via email and phone messages to repeat the request and to alert Sokol that Metro was now working on deadline. The deadline came and went, and despite repeated communications, no tax forms were provided.

The night after the story deadline, Sokol wrote apologetically: "Sorry it's not to you already. I'm told it was available for three weeks, but your reporter was too busy to get it to you. Let me know if you still need it, and I'll get it to you straight away."

Taking him at his word, we replied: "...yes, we would like the WPUSA 990s and the SBLC 990s immediately. As soon as possible."

The attorney replied sporadically to follow-up emails, and when he did, the replies were enigmatic at best. "Since your story has now run, I am unclear on why you are still in need of documents, ...but I will send," Sokol wrote on the 25th.

After assuring him that, yes, the public documents were still needed, Sokol found time to advise us on how to practice our craft: "Thanks for the explication. So now you are off deadline. Is it 'yesterday's papers' [sic] or do you still want the 990's? (Surely you have better stories to go to ...?)"

Finally, on March 30--11 days after approaching Sokol and almost a month after being told the documents were waiting at Working Partnerships' offices--Sokol faxed Metro the Working Partnerships 990s along with a note dryly noting, "As you will see, it is quite boring."

The documents received were neither signed nor dated. ("I never heard of such a thing," Steiner laughed when told about the incomplete documents. "Why would they do that?") The next day, another fax was sent to Sokol that identified the problem and requested a signed copy and filing date. True to form, Sokol dragged his feet for a week, not returning emails or telephone calls. On April 7, he mailed a letter that promised to attempt to "secure a signed copy" but ignored the request to specify the filing date.

Metro still hasn't been provided with an official copy of the Working Partnership 990 (and, for that matter, the SBLC 990). Perhaps Sokol is still looking for it.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the April 14-20, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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