Watchdog Group Blasting Polis On Transparency Has Transparency Problem Of Its Own, IRS Records Show
A Denver Latino watchdog group increasingly involved in local environmental policy debates that recently called out Governor Jared Polis and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock for transparency concerns apparently has not met its own standards for disclosure, according to Internal Revenue Service documents.
The Colorado Latino Forum (CLF) in recent criticism of Gov. Polis’s Council on Economic Stabilization in Growth tasked with addressing economic fallout of COVID-19, said, “To be clear, transparency into this process is non-negotiable,” referring to the process of naming the council’s membership. The statement came from Ean Thomas Tafoya, the advocacy organization’s co-chair.
IRS records indicate the nonprofit has been out of tax-exemption compliance for nearly two years because it has not submitted necessary tax filings. The non-profit 501(c)(4) has been removed from tax-exemption compliance for almost two years. Western Wire examined the tax records after reporting on CLF’s efforts to shut down transportation projects in Denver and calls for the halting of oil and gas production in Colorado.
On the IRS’s “Automatic Revocation of Exemption List,” organizations that have not filed a Form 990 annual return for three consecutive tax years are “automatically revoked,” the IRS site says.
The IRS data is updated monthly and was last updated by the agency on April 13, 2020. The site includes a warning that “Copies of returns for February and March 2020 are delayed due to technical issues.”
The IRS lists a letter from November 2011 granting CLF tax-exempt status as a non-profit organization under Sec. 501(c)4.
The IRS site notes the group’s tax status was revoked on May 15, 2018. The field for a reinstatement date of the tax-exempt status is empty.
The latest 990-N tax filing included on the IRS page from CLF was from 2014.
At ProPublica’s non-profit explorer site, CLF’s status indicates a 2011 filing, but no recent Form 990 reports are available since 2014.
Tafoya maintained last October in a podcast that the group’s non-profit status allows it to complete the “environmental justice” mission on behalf of Latinos in Colorado.
In an interview in 2017, Tafoya touted CLF’s tax status as allowing the group to project media influence and political advocacy. “We’re a 501(c)(4), so we have the ability to come in and endorse candidates [and] take positions on things,” he told KGNU.
According to IRS protocols, (c)(4) organizations such as a civic group or neighborhood association may participate in political activities under permissible “social welfare” objectives promoting the common good and welfare of the people in their community.
“The promotion of social welfare does not include direct or indirect participation or intervention in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office. However, a section 501(c)(4) social welfare organization may engage in some political activities, so long as that is not its primary activity. However, any expenditure it makes for political activities may be subject to tax under section 527(f),” the IRS regulations state.
CLF remains a highly active advocacy organization that has been petitioning City of Denver officials, the state government and federal agencies as recently as last month, according to recent news articles.
As recently as February 11, 2020, Tafoya testified at a Council on Environmental Quality hearing in Denver under the CLF banner, noting the group “organizes Latinos and indigenous people around the state of Colorado for our public health and prosperity.” He commented publicly on the Trump Administration’s updates to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) at one of two hearings held in the nation.
Last month in a profile story of CLF in ColoradoPolitics, Tafoya said, “We have sought the input of State Legislators and they appear to not have a full picture of what is happening within the CESG.” He was quoted as CLF’s co-chair as part of a letter the group sent to Polis. “To date, the only look inside this structure has been via media coverage naming a few of the council members, including the Chair Federico Peña.”
The Energy Committee met April 28th, with Chairman Pena and former Gov. Bill Ritter among the Democratic representation and State Rep. Lori Saine, a Republican, in attendance. Also present were Colorado Energy Office Director Will Toor, former mayor and county commissioner of Boulder, and Colorado Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Dan Gibbs, a former Democratic legislator.
The CLF letter was signed by co-chairs Tafoya and Xochitl Gaytan, along with Veronica Barela, Arturo Jimenez, Calderón, Miguel Ceballos-Ruiz, Annie Martinez, Juan Marcano, Crystal Murillo and Victoria Aguilar. Ceballos-Ruiz has also run for Denver City Council in recent years.
More recently, CLF has gone head-to-head with Polis over halting infrastructure construction projects such as the I-70 rebuilding effort as well as freezing and ultimately ending oil and gas production in the state as a response to COVID-19 concerns, Western Wire reported late last month.
In an editorial column in the Denver Post on April 10th, Tafoya and Lloyd Burton wrote, “A coalition of community organizations and elected officials call on Gov. Jared Polis to temporarily suspend construction activity on I-70 Central between I-25 and Colorado Blvd. until the statewide shelter-in-place order is lifted due to the growing evidence that small particle pollution is linked to greater morbidity from COVID-19.”
The editorial credited Tafoya’s connect to CLF, citing “Ean Thomas Tafoya is co-chair of the Colorado Latino Forum. Lloyd Burton, Ph.D., is a member of the Colorado Sierra Club.”
CLF has also been at odds with City of Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. While Hancock named construction workers as “essential,” Tafoya insisted the construction push would put members of his community at extra risk.
“Latinos definitely make up more of the workforce, hence more of them are being put at risk,” Tafoya said, saying the policy lacks racial and class equity. “If you couple that with the fact that Latinos tend to live in places where they’re exposed to more general air pollution in the first place, they’re more susceptible.”
CLF has leveraged its organization to directly engage Hancock on issues like workplace discrimination.
Despite the opposition to Denver’s mayor, CLF is well connected within the city’s government. The group’s current board member and former CLF co-chair Lisa Calderón works for Denver Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca as a spokesperson.
Tafoya attempted to become a member of the Denver City Council, running for office in 2015.
Tafoya’s role as head of CFL and his policy advocacy are not always clear. Following his failed attempt to run for office, in 2017 Tafoya represented the Denver Green Roof ballot initiative.
In an interview with Colorado Public Radio at the time he stated, “Well first of all if we don’t win, absolutely a collaborative process, we’re not going away. I really want to tell environmentalists that, you know, we need to keep the pedal on the gas, we’re almost there, we’re pushing our politicians to do the right thing.”
The timing of his work in the Green Roof Initiative appeared to coincide with his time as a representative of CLF.
Among other environmental advocacy hats he wears, Tafoya is also the current Colorado field organizer for Green Latinos, a group dedicated to local environmental issues and environmental justice. And last year, he spearheaded a climate tax effort in the City of Denver in 2019 as part of a separate anti-fossil fuel group, Resilient Denver. While the 2019 initiative failed, the measure has already received approval to appear on the 2020 ballot in November.