Wednesday, September 27, 2006
L. A. Gay Center Sues IRS Over Delay in Producing Documents
Group Says Records of Decades-Old Conflict Would Show Agency’s ‘Shameful History’
By TINA BAY, Staff Writer
The L.A. Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center yesterday sued the Internal Revenue Service in federal court over documents it is seeking from the agency pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act.
The complaint alleges that the IRS, refusing to respond to the center’s March 2005 Freedom of Information Act request, has been improperly withholding records pertaining to the center’s 1971 application for tax exempt status under Internal Revenue Code Sec. 501(c)(3).
“This lawsuit has been filed after the unsuccessful efforts of The Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center…to uncover information about a shameful chapter in the history of the IRS that the IRS does not want to be made public,” the complaint says.
The center is asking the court to issue a declaratory judgment that the IRS violated the Freedom of Information Act, and an order requiring the agency to immediately produce the requested records.
The “Gay Community Services Center,” as the organization was originally called, applied for federal non-profit status with the IRS in 1971, and was denied, allegedly on the unsubstantiated grounds that it was not “organized and operated exclusively for charitable and educational purposes.” After a number of appeals, the IRS finally granted tax exempt status to the center in August 1974—but subject to certain conditions including that the center would not “contend that homosexuality is normal” and that its “officers and directors are not avowed homosexuals,” the center claims.
The center says it was the first organization with the word “gay “ in its name to apply for non-profit status.
Board member Dean Hansell, managing partner in LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae’s local office and the center’s pro bono legal counsel, filed the Freedom of Information Act request on the center’s behalf asking for all records in connection with the 1971 denial letter, the 1974 ruling letter, and a reissued ruling letter dated August 16, 1989.
Under 5 U.S.C. Sec. 552 (a)(c)(A), a federal agency must make a determination as to requested records within 20 business days after receiving the request, and must then notify the requesting party of its determination and supporting reasons. The time limit may be extended in “unusual circumstances” if the agency provides the requesting party with written notices setting forth the reasons for extension and an expected determination date.
The IRS allegedly did not respond to the center’s request until seven months later, in a four-sentence-long letter dated October 19, 2005. In that correspondence, Tax Law Specialist Symeria R. Rascoe, of the IRS’ Washington D.C. Disclosure Office, replied:
“We are writing to inform you that we have found documents which originated within and are being reviewed by the Office of Collection Policy. We have been unable to obtain an estimated completion date, however, we will send the information to you as soon as we receive it.”
The agency has since allegedly failed to produce any documents or respond to Hansell’s communication efforts, including a Nov. 8 letter giving the IRS notice of the center’s intent to sue.
“I guess the IRS has decided that the Freedom of Information Act doesn’t apply to them,” Hansell told the MetNews. “Its been 18 months since we first tried to get the documents from them, and they’ve tried to stonewall us.”
The L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, he said, is the largest organization of its kind in the world. It provides a broad array of services to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, including free and low-cost medical care, legal services, and cultural programs.
In a news release yesterday, the center’s Chief Executive Officer Lorri L. Jean explained why obtaining the records was important to the organization:
Important to History
“As the Center celebrates its 35th anniversary, we’re especially interested in learning more about our history, including the Federal government’s blatant discrimination against the first openly gay organization to seek non-profit status. It is clear that the IRS is reluctant to release these documents because it does not want this shameful and discriminatory chapter in its history to be made public.”
“The government has a responsibility to come clean on what they have done, even if it is embarrassing to them. The Freedom of Information Act is clear that the public has a right to see information concerning decision decisions made by the government.”
IRS officials, including Rascoe, could not be reached for comment.
The action, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, is Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center, Inc. v. Internal Revenue Service, case number CV 06-6122.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company