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Lead Safe America in financial disarray

TRIBUNE PHOTO: SHASTA KEARNS MOORE - Lead Safe America Foundations tax filings and financial documents are under investigation by the Oregon Department of Justice. Lead Safe America Foundation remains in flux as the nonprofit’s board members choose sides in a rift with former Executive Director Tamara Rubin.

Rubin, a Portland resident who founded and pulled the majority of the organization’s weight since its 2011 inception, was ousted by the new board president and the treasurer — acting on previous board approval — at the end of August, in a dispute over financial management.


See related story: Lead-safety advocate ousted from nonprofit


Public documents and tax returns filed over the last few years show an organization in financial disarray and about $90,000 in debt.

Charities in Oregon are subject to investigation by the Charitable Activities Section of the Oregon Department of Justice, and Rubin posted on Facebook Aug. 26 that the foundation was being investigated by the DOJ.

Auditors could decide to bring a civil suit against the organization or board members, or even potentially reach an agreement to dissolve the nonprofit. The nonprofit’s board could also potentially sue Rubin, says Ellen Klem, a Department of Justice spokeswoman.

However, “The organization is cooperating and working to resolve the issues,” Klem says.

State officials could turn over their findings to the Internal Revenue Service, she adds, which could jeopardize the organization’s 501(c)3 status.TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Lead Safe America Foundation founder and former executive director Tamara Rubin is working with authorities to resolve issues with the nonprofit's financial reporting.

Rubin was not available to comment before press deadline.

Nola Wilken, a CPA with a Portland accounting firm specializing in nonprofits, says a brief review of the organization’s 990 tax forms from the past few years reflects an out-of-control organization susceptible to fraud and mismanagement.

“It is easy to see why the Department of Justice opened an investigation,” Wilken wrote in an email to the Portland Tribune.

“Numerous inconsistencies and accounting anomalies are reflected in the filed reports, and they appear to have been completed in a careless, haphazard fashion,” Wilken wrote. “Clearly there is a disregard for accepted accounting and business practices, which is a very big red flag.”

Rubin became a national leader on lead hazards after shoddy remodeling work at her Sellwood house resulted in lead contamination that affected some of her children. She founded the national nonprofit and has worked several years on a documentary film, called “MisLEAD,” on the issue.

Rubin did attach letters to the foundation tax forms explaining several anomalies. For example, the 2013 tax return was filed more than a year late in October 2015. Rubin explained that disabilities resulting from the lead poisoning of three of her four children had thrown her life into chaos.

“While we understand it is the responsibility of the Board of Directors to file the return if the volunteer staff is unable to do so, our board members have not historically been involved with the day-to-day operations and are mostly not geographically accessible as well, so they were not able to step in and file the return in my absence,” she wrote to the Internal Revenue Service. “We are working on shifting this paradigm for future years, and our current board is now more involved and active than in previous years.”

Board could be liable

The Lead Safe America Foundation website lists four out of six board members who have been on the board for less than a year. This includes Laura Clark and Caron Katz. An email from Clark obtained by the Tribune shows that Clark and Katz acted independently of the rest of the board to remove Rubin.

(Note: After publication of this story, new documentation was obtained showing that the board voted unanimously on July 25 to approve the removal of the Rubins from the organization. A lawyer from Catalyst Law said Clark and Katz were executing that action.)

Another six board members are listed on the site as having left the board this year: former president Beth Butler, Angela Zehava, Jessica Mendels, Catherine Brooks, Leonard Rubin and Kathy Lauckner. Leonard Rubin, husband of Tamara, Butler and Lauckner were founding board members.

Board members could be personally liable if courts find that the nonprofit’s funds were mismanaged.

A friend of Tamara Rubin’s, attorney Kelly Fisher, offered her assessment of the situation.

“I don’t know the extent of the bookkeeping issues, or how bad it may look, but would not be particularly surprised if they occurred, given the way Tamara has poured herself into this work for so many years,” Fisher wrote in a message to board members and the media. “I don’t know how anyone could do as much as she’s done. She has literally done it all.”

Rubin is listed on the 990s as having volunteered 60 or more hours per week for the foundation and is primarily responsible for garnering hundreds of thousands of dollars in in-kind donations. Fisher says it would be a mistake for the board to react by demanding that she stop her lead advocacy and surrender possession of “MisLEAD,” the yet-to-be-released documentary film that features the Rubins’ personal journey.

(After publication of this story, Lead Safe America Foundation attorney Kate Kilberg responded that at no time did the board ask Rubin to cease lead advocacy work. When asked to clarify if the board wanted her to stop her advocacy through Lead Safe America, Kilberg responded: "Well, she’s been removed from the organization, so I’ll let you take your conclusion from that.)

“What I don’t understand is: if we abandon Tamara, what else is there to save? From the point of view of anyone who’s been helped by the foundation, and anyone who’s donated, Tamara IS the foundation, and the foundation IS Tamara,” Fisher wrote. “The terms and conditions being proposed right now may not be particularly unusual for lawyers, but they are sickeningly unfair to anyone who knows even a little bit about Tamara’s history with the organization.”

This story has been updated from its original version with additional information in italics and corrected information on the role of Clark and Katz in terminating Rubin.


Shasta Kearns Moore
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