War and Peace
Spread Peace is the opposite of what happened when activists began feeding poor people in Reno
The story of the connections and differences between Spread Peace Reno and Spread Peace Café is totally a News & Review kind of story: Chris and Tysha Tinney came to town, they inspired some people to positive action, they developed some critics, they got embroiled in a social media wars of words, their inner circle imploded, innocent people were injured and threatened, police got involved, and uncertainty ensued.
I started working on the story from a distance a year ago, just asking questions, doing some research on the internet. A bit later, I talked to the principal players, going along with them to feed homeless people at Tent City. Later, I found some questionable information, established that someone may have lied on a government form, was misled by that same someone, saw innocent people hurt, and got a damning interview with one of the inside players (a disabled pastor, of all people).
And while all that was going on, I continued to hear about Spread Peace Café’s business model in which a for-profit business would help needy people out of its profits. I met some people whose hearts appeared to be in the right places, and I realized it would be difficult for me to tell the first story of intrigue without throwing dirt down onto what could be not just a legitimate business venture, but an admirable one.
The seemingly contradictory scenarios—a scam or a boon or something in between—gave me a queasy stomach and a Gordian plot. So get ready—this isn’t going to be pretty.
The Tinneys are not part of the operations at Spread Peace Café. The Spread Peace Café is the restaurant that opened in July 2010 in the ground floor of the Palladio on the riverside. Randy and Roberta Tams are the sole owners. The Tinneys led Spread Peace Reno, a community effort to help feed, clothe and shelter Reno’s homeless, particularly those at Tent City.
The Tams were inspired—some would say taken in—by the Tinneys’ apparent good works and rhetoric, but no one can deny that, for a while there, the Tinneys were doing good things.
The Tinneys are gone from Reno now. They’re in Las Vegas, starting a Spread Peace Foundation and involved in Spread Peace Las Vegas. It seems possible that Spread Peace Reno is a thing of the past. But even that is questionable. Just this week, Mike Jamieson, a local blogger who often writes about matters of soul, posted an apologia devoted to the Tinneys, the Spread Peace “movement,” and the anti-Tinney campaign.
Chris Tinney called on deadline to say he has every intention of returning to Reno, and he has a new plan to feed the homeless people in weekly hotels.
“There’s 6,000 homeless people in Reno,” he said. “A thousand are on the street, 5,000 are in the weekly hotels. It makes it a pretty unique situation there. You could really offer a meal to every homeless person in the city because if you picked up 50 hotels, and they were adopted out to 40 or 50 churches, you could get a meal to those 5,000 people. That’s the goal, to inspire and supply people who want to take action with what they need to be able to do that.”
Many people have been following the Spread Peace gossip in the analog community, but the hottest war raged on the internet, with all kinds of accusations, lawsuits threatened, and name-calling flying back and forth on an almost daily basis.
The bullets keep flying on Facebook. The group’s chief critic, Teresa Peña, who formerly worked with the Tinneys but now volunteers at another food bank, logged another attack on Jan. 12 that detailed some of the expenditures from the Spread Peace Reno bank account. Check out “Teresa’s high and lows of dealing with Reno non-profits” on Facebook. See also Mike Jamieson’s WordPress blog, “Bodhi Reports.”
“I’m the reason Tysha started her Stop Bullying Page,” said Peña, also saying that all the businesses Chris Tinney is involved with on the Nevada Secretary of State’s site show a peculiar interconnectedness. “It’s not a matter of showing us the check; it’s a matter of an audit. All the public wants is for them to show whether they’re a [government recognized] non-profit. Who is their congregation? They set groups together, then they call them a church, but they’re not a church. Peace church? There’s nothing peaceful about this.”
One evening in March 2010, I visited Chris and Tysha Tinney at their home at 36 Vine St. Chris explained to me that, due to the First Amendment, anyone can decide what their own definition of “church” is, and the state doesn’t charge churches sales and use taxes. Of course, if someone falsely claims to be a church in order to evade paying taxes, it could be a problem.
Spread Peace Reno did get sales-and-use tax exemption by saying they were a religious organization. It’s not as simple as that, though. You can’t live in your “church,” which the Tinneys were doing when I visited them. The address is also listed on Nevada Secretary of State filings as Chris Tinney’s address.
“It’s not supposed to be a residence,” said Robert Siegel, an administrator of the sales-tax-exemption program. “They’ve got it at 36 Vine St., and if it’s a residence, I don’t believe it would have been approved. I’d have to research the file and all that, but based on this, we had someone from our Reno office go out and verify it, and it seemed to pass the test that it was an actual church.”
Siegel’s boss, Kathy Williams, said while a committee makes the tax exempt designation, it’s not always done with a personal visit:
“In general, we go out and visit different locations. We don’t always take the applications at face value. We look at them; we do some research on the internet, as well. Unfortunately, you can’t visit every single application that comes in. We do what we call ‘field check.’ And if that’s the location that they’re telling us, then that’s part of it. The other part of it is, does the information they provide meet the criteria set in the statute for it?”
At the time, Chris Tinney told me he had applied with the Internal Revenue Service to become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. The IRS moves glacially, and that delayed an article about the group while I waited for the documents to surface. To this day, I’ve not found a record that Tinney filed for Spread Peace Reno to become a federally recognized nonprofit, and when I called the IRS, they told me they couldn’t tell me whether there was an application filed. I couldn’t find a document in the other usual places, like Guidestar.com. When I asked Tinney by email for a copy of the application on March 24, well, that was the last I heard from him, until deadline this week. But none of that proved he didn’t apply.
He said it was a misunderstanding: “We had paid the fees to the attorney, and we were doing the paperwork, so we had about $1,500 into the application process, but that was with our attorney, it hadn’t been mailed off yet. We were in the process of filing with the attorney. I don’t know if there’s a difference between that, but when I said I was doing it, I had paid $1,500 to the attorney.”
Spread Peace Reno sure seemed like a religious organization. They had a ministry of feeding poor people. They called themselves ministers. They even had a senior pastor, Pastor Ron Sapp.
In August, when the Spread Peace Reno board of directors kicked him out after questioning some of Chris Tinney’s spending, I sat down with Pastor Ron in his home in the Chism Trailer Park. He’s partially disabled from a degenerative bone disease, overweight, and seemed genuinely afraid of the Tinneys. He was 50 years old and a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. To be honest, he seemed a little paranoid, judgmental about other people’s personal relationships, and angry, too. He also appeared a bit strung out on Vicoden and anti-depressants—coherent, but his medicine was plainly only partially controlling the pain.
Still, he provided document after document, including nearly the entire Spread Peace Reno bank account record in Wells Fargo Bank, records from the group’s PayPal account—in which donors, including local businessmen, gave Spread Peace Reno regular monthly payments of $14, $27 or $47—and copious notes and personal emails with the Tinneys and others. His openness with the group’s financial records made his claims that he’d spent up to $40,000 of his own money from an auto-accident settlement on the Spread Peace Reno ministry that much more credible.
Sapp said his settlement money went to buy computers and other supplies necessary to start up the huge food ministry. He didn’t seem to resent the financial loss. “For that little price, what the ministry has accomplished is just on a grand scale feeding up to … it was almost 30,000 meals a month.”
That’s pretty close to what Chris Tinney told me in March, which was that they were doing 5,000 meals a week. The money also went toward paying bills for the Peace Place, 2375 Dickerson Road, warehouse space Spread Peace Reno used for storage of food and clothing and related items.
Sapp’s primary concern was that Chris Tinney had used some funds—around $2,000 in July, according to the police report—for personal use, including cell phone, internet, utilities, medicine and pot. Yet, even though he talked about the money, it became apparent in the hour-plus interview that his main concern was the fact that homeless people were not being fed. He said that the Tinneys had changed priorities from feeding the poor to running a restaurant to feed the well-heeled. But when he went public with his fears on Facebook, accusing Chris of bad behavior, he claimed the peace-loving Tinneys got angry with him and wanted him quiet.
“When you come across somebody like Chris, and he wants to put his finger in the pie or his hand in the cookie jar—as I like to put it—the best way that I know of is to expose it. ‘Here’s the documentation; anybody can make up their own mind.’ I’ve been threatened by Tysha to be sued for slander [although with thousands of videos, photos and postings, it would be difficult to argue the couple didn’t seek to become public figures, which would undermine their case for “slander”]. … Chris came over, and I said, ‘Chris, today I don’t even want to talk to you.’ Well, a few minutes later, Tysha came in, and I told her to leave, I didn’t want to talk to her. She persisted on and on, and I made it like I was calling the police. She got all upset, in fact she raised such a ruckus that my neighbors came outside to figure out what was going on. I have since spoken to police, and I am extremely handicapped. I have no way of defending myself. Right now, I’m so in fear of my life, and that’s the truth.”
But that was in August. Nowadays, he says he’s not worried about the Tinneys, and he’s again feeding the homeless on Record Street with Amber Lynn Dobson’s group “We Care” at 5:15 p.m., Monday through Thursday.
Chris Tinney says Sapp is among the people who are saying libelous things about him: “I think it’s absurd for anybody to think that we ever had donations that even came close to paying for everything we had going on at the Food Bank and the Peace House and the food and the bowls and the spoons. Every month, it took an infusion of our own money to run Spread Peace Reno from the beginning. When we opened the Café, we spent most of our time over there, and Ron was the treasurer and the pastor and running the operation. When I got a call, and I didn’t have $2,500 to give him for the month, he had a fit and started making some accusations that became increasingly more severe over time. And those accusations are the area that’s obviously absurd, so I’m seeking legal advice, because if you look at some of the comments from that, as well as people he’s talked to, are slander and inaccurate.”
The Spread Peace Café got caught up in the controversy. It’s not difficult to call the business a victim of the community campaign to root out whether Spread Peace Reno was a marketing ploy by scammers or a ministry devoted to helping poor people. That kind of brush paints a broad swath.
Talk to Randy and Roberta Tams, though, and the answer seems clear: Spread Peace Café is a socially conscious business that got off to a rocky start because of some of the people involved and the restaurant’s association with Spread Peace Reno. Randy Tams has been a successful entrepreneur for years. He spent 18 years building a large manufacturing plant, which he eventually sold to a New York mergers and acquisition firm. But building a manufacturing plant is not the same as opening a restaurant. Some have placed his Café investment at the million-dollar mark.
He’s very concerned about his reputation and the reputation of the Café, and it’s obvious the controversy, which he characterizes as “bad Facebook press,” has been personally embarrassing to the couple and hurtful to the business. He says the restaurant has completely separated from Spread Peace Reno and the Tinneys, although the Tinneys were initially given part ownership of the Café, primarily because inspiration for the Café came from that couple’s efforts to help poor people. But that’s gone, and the Tinneys gave back their part ownership shortly before Christmas. Randy Tams said the restaurant is “rebranding,” and there are plans to change the name, perhaps as soon as March 1.
“There really isn’t too much of a relationship at all; there was a political falling out,” said Randy in November. “Chris and Tysha, their hearts are in the right place, but I’ve always been a person who tries to understate and over-deliver. When you do that, no one walks away disappointed. When you overstate and under-deliver, you start taking bullets. With Chris in particular, I found that he was promising this and promising that—‘How we going to do it now?’ Kind of reminded me of a car salesman, when you get down to the fine print.
“We gifted them a small interest in the business here, but there were several instances where he came in, and his actions were really kind of discrediting to the Café’s image, and clientele were asking, ‘Who is this guy, what’s he doing?’ And it was hard for me to keep making excuses: ‘He’s part of our activist side.’”
That idea of “a meal to the homeless for every meal sold” was part of the discussion of the Café in the beginning, but it never happened. It was never supposed to be a meal of equal value, anyway. Then the owners switched to the idea of devoting a certain percentage of the till—2 percent, according to several sources—to feeding the homeless. The problem is few businesses have any profits at all in their early days. But even in those first days, the Tams gave large personal sums to feeding people: $2,400 in August, according to both Randy Tams and Pastor Ron. In November, the idea had evolved to one where the restaurant would host charitable events—like monthly winemaker dinners where a percentage of the proceeds would go to the chosen charity or the Claus for Cause event before Christmas to benefit underprivileged children. They are not working with homeless people at all now.
Randy Tams is justifiably concerned about receiving even more bad press, but some of the community’s questions must be satisfied if the Café is to succeed and the potential of socially responsible businesses to blossom.
“You can take a story like this, and you can make it juicy and top reading for people, but maybe focus on the wrong things. A lot of times the reason the rag sells so much is because it’s throwing the dirt down on people. There’s some of that in the early part of this, but the other part is the future, and what we’re really trying to do here.”