Foundation Confusion: Is it Charity or Branding?

48868459-cachedNew Orleans   Poor Donald Trump. He just can’t catch a break it seems, and somehow the defense that “that’s business,” doesn’t seem to be working for enough people. One of the latest examples revolves around the Trump family foundation.

An exhaustive report in The Washington Post found that Trump has used the foundation to make a $25000 political contribution in Florida, buy pictures of himself, and pay business expenses, all of which are strictly forbidden by the tax exemption rules of the Internal Revenue Service for private foundations. Even with the political donation, all he got was a hand slap, even though he had also filed false information in the IRS Form 990. Worse for Trump, the problems in his own foundation, probably make it a wee bit harder for him to make the dealings of the Clinton Foundation as big an issue as he would like, but maybe not, we’ll see.

It’s easy to see how Trump would be confused. Like many, heck, maybe most, business people and the superrich, they seem to easily be confused about the difference between charity, you know, those gifts from the heart, and branding, which means little more than making your business look better to the public and your customers. In the Trump and common business mindset, a foundation is a way to hide some profits tax free and to promote your business interests behind the veil of good works. This whole charity thing in Trump’s view is probably just “for losers.”

The New York Times carried a full-page ad recently for the sole purpose of allowing a national, publicly funded new museum, the long awaited, National Museum of African American History & Culture, a branch of the Smithsonian, to thank its so-called “founding donors for their support & generosity.” Talk about a list of blue chip corporations and big named rich from entertainment, sports, and the like, including of course big foundations that have been shielding wealth for corporations for generations. In the $5 million list were 3M, American Express, the Boeing Company, GE, Target, UnitedHealth Group, and Walmart, along with the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation for the old rich. Kaiser Permanente was the only nonprofit on that list. Michael Jordan got on the list, still smarting that he has become the poster boy along with Trump currently for “business first, the rest of you later,” and trying to desperately rebrand himself. From there to the $1 million list, I counted sixty more corporations and corporate foundations.

I’m not saying there was no pride or generosity involved, but the purpose of the ad and much of what motivated the level of the contributions was all about branding and purchasing the public’s good will. Nor am I saying that the museum was not a “good cause, but it speaks volumes that the American public and its taxpaying dollars were never acknowledged, even though they are absolutely the most important “founding donor.”

We already know that part of the reason the IRS doesn’t do more to separate the branding from the actual charity, is that Congress is in a bloody battle with the agency and has decimated its funding, particularly of the nonprofit and tax exempt division of the Service. So, don’t expect to see more justice and accountability come to supervision and oversight of corporate foundations as tax dodges, slush funds, and playthings of executives and the rich. That’s what they think foundations are for, and there’s no one really out there to tell them differently or make them do better.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Is Wells Fargo Forcing Regulators and Politicians to Finally Take on the Banks?

Wells Fargo Chief Executive Officer John Stumpf prepares to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016, before Senate Banking Committee. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Wells Fargo Chief Executive Officer John Stumpf prepares to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016, before Senate Banking Committee. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

New Orleans   Ok, I’ve always been clear that Wells Fargo for more than a decade has led my list as the most evil and customer-exploiting of the nation’s big banks, and I am loving the fact that they have been caught red handed in fraud and are having their comeuppance. No one can ever take a victory lap with the megabanks though, but for a fleeting minute there’s hope that just maybe the government might be forced to finally start taking the steps to straighten out some of their commonplace, but predatory business practices.

First, let’s savor the hot mess that is now Wells Fargo. The California state treasurer, where Wells Fargo is headquartered and has been frequently sanctified, has reacted to the bank’s fraud by suspending the bank from handling municipal bond sales in California and a number of other lucrative practices. The Wells Fargo board, realizing the light hand slap to bank executives and their efforts to push this off as if 5000 fired fraudsters were just a few bad apples wasn’t getting it, finally starting to at least pretend to do its job. They permanently retired the head of community banking who had presided over this mess and clawed back $19 million from her golden handshake. They told the CEO who had snoozed and covered up all of this mess that he was working for free during their investigation of this mess and would not get a bonus for 2016 and clawed back $41 million in stock awards from him. Congress is taking another shot at the CEO soon as well. His head still may roll, as rightly it probably should. A couple of fired workers are suing the company,  because they had refused to go with unethical and unrealistic sales practices.

At the heart of this mess is Wells Fargo’s boiler room sales operation and the holy grail of a lot of big bank and financial institution mischief: cross-selling. Cross-selling is simple to understand. Once a bank has a customer, they view that customer as a mini-market for them to hustle all manner of products to Joe Schmoo. In the belly of these beastly banks they all do this, and they all have giant boiler rooms trying to move product with little supervision and high sales quotas.

Wells Fargo was caught, but it is something they are all doing in general, even if some of them may not have gone with outright Wells Fargo fraud. The Wall Street Journal looked at complaints filed with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and found that Wells had 1576 complains about account management, while Citigroup had 1722 or 1.8 complaints per billion dollars of deposits. Bank of America had 1.7 compared to Wells Fargo’s 1.3 complaints per billion and JP Morgan Chase had 1.1 complaints per billion. I’m grasping a straw of hope in reading that “Analysts say the problems at Wells Fargo put pressure on government agencies to more closely regulate the cross-selling of products and incentive compensation tied to tough sales goals.” Hosanna!

It’s a safe bet that since they are all doing it, they are likely all dirty on this as well. While the government and politicians are finally starting to grow a backbone in dealing with banks, we can hope it lasts long enough to clean up this high pressure, direct theft from customers.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Trump May Be Rebuilding the Women’s Movement

from bitchmedia.com

from bitchmedia.com

New Orleans    In spite of himself Donald Trump may launch a sea change in the way that American women are dealt with in both private and public by serving as a poster boy for how much American men say they have changed, and how little they have actually changed. He has made no special effort to make this huge contribution. He has just done what comes naturally to him.

I didn’t watch the debate. I saw a soundless minute or two changing airplanes around the world. Just enough to see Trump talking and Clinton grinning like the cat who had swallowed the canary. I have never seen the word “manterruption” before, and I may be misspelling it and not saying it correctly now, but thanks to thousands of stories about the most watched debate in US-history, all of us immediately know what it means and how it works. Women are rallying behind the banner of “I told you so,” with fingers pointed at Trump’s performance and his constant efforts to talk over Clinton, to interrupt her as she spoke, and uncontrollably feel driven to respond, even unwisely, to her points.

Single-handedly, Trump has proven why no amount of “leaning in” will ever work with many men, especially those with wealth and power, because they just don’t respect or care what women have say. Period. They like the eye candy, but such men don’t want a whole lot more than that.

And, as Trump has abundantly proven, such men and many, many like them it seems from the level of his continued support, will say they love women and shout down any naysayers, but when it comes right down to it they don’t know what to do with them or have much interest in figuring it out. For Trump and his team it’s still the 50’s, and it’s a man’s world. They never understood the rest of the James Brown line that “it would be nothing without a woman or a girl.”

In the same way that Black Lives Matter and the ruthlessness of police has grabbed the country by the shirt collar and shaken the pretense of progress on race to reveal how much systemic racism is still crippling the country, Trump will launch a million water cooler and kitchen table discussions about how deep seeded sexism remains throughout the country, high and low. In voices soft and loud, there will be tens of millions of women reminding men to not “go Trump” on them when they have something to say and need to be heard. Those women will find the opportunity to remind the men in their lives, sons, brothers, partners, and colleagues that they need to get right on this issue before they humiliate themselves and become pariahs among women. You know, like Trump did.

That’s the problem with this whole fake issue of “political correctness.” That’s camouflage being worn by Trump and some of his supporters as a claim that the problem is language, and not the beliefs themselves. No matter what lipstick you put on a pig, it’s still a pig. No matter how you dress up sexism and racism, these diseases are still viral it seems throughout our society, and Trump is proving in his candidacy and campaign that they are popular and pronounced. Every time he opens his mouth, interrupts, and spouts his “tell it like it is” racism and misogyny, he is also sending messages that repel good people everywhere and move them to recoil in horror and humiliation, and vow to change themselves and force others to do so as well.

When all of this is said and done, we may owe him some inadvertent and unearned thanks for showing all of us how we should never be and helping those silenced to raise their voices for change.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Out of Cameroon, the Rest of the Story

Douala traffic jam

Douala traffic jam

Washington   As one of our veteran participants wrote me when he got home, “I didn’t think any Organizers’ Forum could beat Egypt, but Cameroon did!” In Cairo we could feel a revolution slipping away, less than a year after it began. In Cameroon, we could feel that change was inevitable, even as we often bumped against the hard edge of the state.

Cameroon is not an easy country. Douala is a low slung, large sprawling city buzzing with activity from the predawn to the wee hours with taxis honking and motorcycles and cars clogging every piece of pavement. When I say Cameroon had hard edges, I’m not talking about the fact that our hotel had no hot water, occasional internet, and usually no toilet seats. People just shrugged and said “C’est Cameroon,” and we did, too. Nor am oblivious to the fact that even as we stood around the airport with no seats on the concourse that locals commented on how much things had improved in recent years with fewer police and the removal of the 10,000 franc exit fee. I’m really talking about how arbitrary and capricious state power in an autocracy can be, because that’s what’s important to people in Cameroon.

Eels for sale in the market

Eels for sale in the market

Every day of our meetings we had between 15 and 20 organizers with us from all over Africa, the USA, Canada, and France, but as importantly to us were the organizers that were turned away without reason at the airport. Two ACORN Kenya organizers flew in from Nairobi only to be turned back at customs despite all the expense of yellow fever shots, visas, and plane fares. The same happened to our organizer from Sierra Leone. Amazingly, a fourth organizer who had flown for days from Cambodia was also turned back, as the police said, “it’s another one for the same meeting,” as he was rebuffed. All of this was after excruciating study of the websites, discussions with embassies and countless government officials in Yaoundé, the capital, and Douala, to ensure that we had crossed every “t” and dotted every “i,” these four organizers were simply denied entry to the country once they had arrived.

The procedures in Cameroon indicate that if there is no embassy in your country where you can apply online or in person, a visa is available at the airport. There are some additional letters of invitation required, but nothing that seemed exceptional, until they arrived and suddenly heard the claim that weekend that an official signature was required from someone in Yaoundé. Not only was this sudden requirement seemingly fabricated at the last moment, but since it was the weekend, it was impossible to fulfill, and there was no flexibility as our people were deported immediately. Sure this was expensive and cost us thousands, but even worse, these organizers were not allowed to participate in this historic meeting.

dscn1792

Another episode at the airport involved a row with the police when they were part of a random tourist show and swarmed two of our delegation to seize the cellphone, and force a lengthy argument to finally get it returned. Or, take the security guard that would not allow bags to go on the concourse without a bribe.

People talked to us in meeting after meeting about a transition coming in central and western Africa from the generation of dictators, and we were all optimistic as we met so many people and were inspired by their work and courage that change was coming, and it would be soon. At the same time it was impossible to ignore that people still lived with one eye always looking over their shoulder at a government that used state power without regard for rules or whatever. In one meeting after another we were told that fear was the one “given” in every public interaction, as well as being the cloud over the coming elections and all facets of everyday life.

dscn1839

In Cameroon, we could never forget that every time we brushed up against the state, we came away bruised. Change can’t come fast enough.

dscn1848

dscn1794

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Making Big Plans for Expanding Organizing in Africa

Making Plans

Making Plans

Douala   After six straight days of meetings, almost nonstop, for the Organizers’ Forum in Cameroon, we spent the last two days in critically serious conversations with all of the ACORN-allied organizers and organizations in attendance including ACORN Kenya on Skype until there was a power outage in Nairobi. It was a historic meeting for all of us, and if we can hit the marks we’re setting, it would be indescribably exciting!

The first day we spent a lot of time sharing experiences, country to country. Our partner ReAct had implanted the organizing model developed by ACORN and used by the Alliance Citoyenne in France with great success. Membership had soared, particularly in Cameroon and Liberia as the organization transitioned from largely a campaign-oriented program to a deeply rooted, membership organization in each country in the villages surrounded by Bollore rubber and palm oil plantations. Despite all of the progress, the organizers and many of the local leaders who had participated in various meetings of the Forum felt that we needed some clear victories with the company and needed to accelerate our actions and activity to final force them to be accountable to their promises and agreements. We also needed move the campaign to other battlefields nationally and internationally. ACORN committed to helping with this expansion.

dscn1907

Adrien Roux, the coordinator of ReAct, in opening the last day of strategy, training, and planning meetings, framed the discussion of our expansion in Africa as adding “pillars” to hold up the foundation of our mass organizing strategy. The first pillar was already in place especially in Liberia, Cameroon, and the Ivory Coast with our growing base in the plantations as well as the work in Nairobi over recent years. But, as Adrien laid out the summary of our discussions, we now needed to develop the other pillars that were critical in the ACORN experience in building community-based organizations in the larger cities where we were working and potentially organizing informal workers’ associations and unions as we had done in the USA and India.

More specifically that meant beginning to identify human and financial resources to dramatically expand our organizing in Douala, the largest city in Cameroon, and also a chokepoint for the Bollore campaign. We set early 2017 as the launch date. We also targeted Abidjan, an even larger city in the Ivory Coast for early in 2017, using Cameroon as a training city for our Francophone organizers, and hoping to launch there between spring and summer, if we can put the pieces together. On the Anglophone side, we are integrating the ACORN Kenya operation more closely with the rest of our work in Africa, and exploring opportunities to develop a training capacity between there and South Africa potentially, but time will tell. In the planning meeting for Liberia, organizers there identified potential opportunities that might be available to organizer street vendors given the constant threats in Monrovia to a central market with 4000 sellers constantly under threat. Finishing the day, we also looked at the emerging prospects for our domestic workers’ union finally being resourced for launch in early 2017 in Morocco, which is also likely the site for the 2017 Organizers’ Forum, as well as training opportunities that could also develop more organizing prospects in Tunisia.

dscn1911

When it was over we were spent. The one picture that we didn’t take was Adrien, Jill O’Reilly, ACORN Canada’s head organizer in Ottawa and Quebec, and myself sprawling out on the concourse of the Douala airport on the stools with our gear across the floor exhausted, but exhilarated as we continued making plans, looking up travel schedules for the next visits, and moving to the next steps to make all of this happen, exhausted, but exhilarated as we drug ourselves to the gates and flights back home.

dscn1909

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

The Election Gauntlet of Cameroon

Phillipe Nanga, head of an election observation NGO

Phillipe Nanga, head of an election observation NGO

Douala    Make no mistake. Any notion that Cameroon is a democracy is the same as believing that an obstacle course is the same as a straight road. Yes, there are parties. Yes, there are elections. But, there is no even playing field, so whatever one might want to call this form of government, no matter how you shake-and-bake it, there’s nothing particularly fair about it. It is no surprise that the existing president has been in office for more than 34 years, is 84 years old, and is expected to stand for another seven-year term in 2018.

We spent some time early in the Organizers’ Forum in a visit with Phillipe Nanga, the head of Un Monde Avenir, the World to Come, a fair elections NGO, and his staff, who gave us a good sense of the problem and a crash course in the election obstacles and voter suppression. They work closely with Elections Cameroon, called EleCam, a state agency that is responsible for registering voters. There is nothing easy about voter registration. I’m not saying that they invented difficult registration, but I will say that the system is reminiscent of the process used by many southern states even at the dawn of the 1970’s in the USA. A graphic illustration over his head went through their steps of training election observers down to protection of the ballot box. I asked Nanga if ballot box theft was common, and he answered without hesitation, yes.

difficult election process

difficult election process

To register you either have to personally go into the EleCam office nearest you and successfully present your documents or someone employed by EleCam has to somehow come to you in a meeting, rally, market, or some such. The reason EleCam is a good partner for Un Monde Avenir is that they are on a quota for registrations by the government so anything that is organized for them, makes their jobs easier, and allows them to keep their jobs. Voting of course requires an ID, but a national ID is required to do everything in Cameroon, so that is not an obstacle here since everyone has one. More than half of the population is under 19 years old, so, not surprisingly, you cannot register to vote until you are 20 years old. Un Monde Avenir has been focusing on registering youth. We were told by their staff that they had registered 100 people so far this year.

Of the 23,130,708 people in the population as of June 2015, 5, 981,226 were registered. There are no accurate figures but a solid estimate would mean that between 40 and 45% of the eligible voters in the population are not registered to vote: a very large voting pool! When those who are successful in registering are allowed to vote, a fair number do so. 68% of the eligible voters in fact did vote in the 2011 presidential election, the last time they had a chance.

leader of largest opposition party

leader of largest opposition party

We spoke to two leaders of parties in Cameroon, one was the leader of the largest, Elembe Lobe Abel. His party, SDF, has close to a score of national parliamentarians in each house and more than 800 local office holders in the country. I asked him how he saw his party’s prospects in the election expected sometime in 2018. He answered that for any opposition party to have a chance, the constitution would have to allow for a runoff. The winner is now “first past the post,” which always favors an incumbent. He felt the only way anyone would have a chance without a change in the no-runoff election would be if the existing president somehow declined to run. Interesting to the Forum delegates was Abel’s description of Bollore as a criminally, corrupt corporation in Cameroon.

head of the CPP party and Cameroon Obasso

head of the CPP party and Cameroon Obasso

We also spoke to the dynamic head of another large party CPP which is also interesting in that it has a political, but nonpartisan operation called Cameroon Obasso or Cameroon Let’s Go which operates almost like a community organization with various marginal populations. They are also part of an amalgamation called Stand Up for Cameroon, which has attracted wide support. She had run for president in 2011. She was more focused on the transition or, said another way, the inevitable death of the existing president, when the country would have the opportunity for change.

There are hundreds of parties in Cameroon. The law also prevents them from fusing or cross endorsing, so each is on its own in the fight for democracy against great odds in Cameroon.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail