Check and see

Teresa Peña, the local activist who has held the operators of Spread Peace Reno’s feet to the fire, has a point: Just because a group chooses to call itself a “nonprofit” doesn’t mean it’s a legitimate tax-exempt entity, as defined by the Internal Revenue Service, and able to accept tax-deductible donations.

As reported in our cover story (page 11), we have little reason to believe that Chris and Tysha Tinney are nefarious people who are trying to con charitable people by using down-on-their-luck folks as marketing tools. In most cases, it appears the Tinneys are more incompetent at negotiating government bureaucracy and the laws surrounding tax exemptions and nonprofit businesses than they are flimflammers.

Just as true, there are a good many businesses in Reno that have never made a dime, but they’re not nonprofit, they’re just unprofitable.

Anyone can ask for money, and unless they misrepresent what they are taking the money for, donors can give money, as long as they don’t expect something in return, like a tax deduction. Online groups like Guidestar and Charity Navigator suggest giving only to charity groups that have the IRS 501(c)(3) designation. This from Charity Navigator: “Confirm 501(c)(3) Status: Wise donors don’t drop money into canisters at the checkout counter or hand over cash to solicitors outside the supermarket. Situations like these are irresistible to scam artists who wish to take advantage of your goodwill. If for no other reason than they want to take the tax deduction, smart givers only support groups granted tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.”

There are reasons tax-exempt organizations must have open books, or at least books open on the levels that government agencies are. By not paying taxes, tax-exempt organizations take money out of the public money pool, money that government could have used to benefit citizens through schools, police—even feeding needy people. Citizens have a right to know what happens to that money. Citizens have a right to know who is involved in tax-exempt organizations, whether and how much officers and staff are being paid, where the money is coming from and where it is going—too much information to outline here. Take a look at a form 990 on for a sample, but legitimate 501(c)(3)s must also have this information available on hard copy for the public at any request.

But claims of “online stalking” and “slander” recently made by the Tinneys and their supporters are a bit hard to support. One went so far as to threaten “criminal libel” to silence people who were asking legitimate questions. Criminal libel, by the way, does not exist in Nevada. It’s that whole First Amendment thing. The Tinneys published thousands of videos, photographs and postings online. They certainly sought the public eye and made themselves public figures, which would seem to limit any libel or slander suits to discussions outside the matters of public import and controversy that they themselves created.