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Castle America: N.Y. Can Subpoena VDARE's Records Related to Alleged Financial Self-Dealing by Nonprofit Directors
From People v. VDARE Foundation, Inc., decided yesterday by New York trial court judge Sabrina Kraus:
Respondent [VDARE] is a New York charitable not-for-profit [and tax-exempt] corporation that incorporated in New York in 1999….
In its application for federal tax-exempt status, Respondent stated its plan to operate from offices in New York and listed two of its four directors at addresses in New York City. Respondent described its primary purpose as creating a publication web page and magazine, with editorial content focusing on foreign and domestic policy issues.
In 2019, Respondent reported a six-fold increase in revenue, from $700,000 in 2018 to approximately $4.3 million in 2019 and including a $1.5 million lump donation from a donor-advised fund. In early 2020, Respondent spent $1.4 million of these newly received funds on the purchase of the Berkeley Springs Castle, a medieval-style castle located in West Virginia.
Public postings by Respondent Chairman Peter Brimelow and others indicate that he and his family have used the castle as their primary residence since at least March 2020. During this same period, Respondent also substantially increased payments to Brimelow and to third-party, for-profit companies he controls. In 2019, Brimelow's reported salary more than doubled and comprised roughly one third of Respondent's operating expenditures. Respondent separately reported spending tens of thousands of dollars on office expenses in 2019, as well as paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to a third-party LLC controlled by Brimelow that was based at Brimelow's residential home address.
In December 2020, Respondent conveyed the entirety of the Berkeley Springs Castle property to two West Virginia corporations incorporated by Lydia Brimelow, Peter's wife and a Respondent director, five months earlier. Respondent conveyed the castle itself and the land that it sits on to the Berkeley Castle Foundation (BCF), a non-profit corporation. Respondent conveyed the remaining land, consisting of eight parcels, to BBB, LLC, a for-profit corporation.
Based on the information it had obtained, the Attorney General began an investigation of Respondent and its leadership for potential violations of the New York law applicable to charities. The Subpoena seeks: documents concerning Respondent's organizational structure; compliance conflict-of-interest policy requirements under New York law, and financial operations; its purchase and conveyance of the Berkeley Springs Castle; and transactions between Respondent and entities controlled by the Brimelows….
[VDARE partly complied with the subpoena, but later sued] in United States District Court for the Northern District of New York … [VDARE Foundation, Inc. v. James, 1:22-cv-01337 (FJS)], alleging, among other things, that Petitioner's demands for certain disclosures threaten Respondent's ability to conduct business; and that Petitioner's subpoena is a retaliatory pretext aimed at interfering with Respondent's rights to freedom of speech and association. The federal complaint seeks a declaration that Subpoena violates Respondent's first amendment rights, an injunction preventing Petitioner's enforcement of the Subpoena and damages. [The New York government then sought] an order compelling Respondent to comply with the investigative Subpoena ….
The requirements for the issuance of an investigatory subpoena duces tecum are "(1) that the issuing agency has authority to engage in the investigation and issue the subpoena, (2) that there is an authentic factual basis to warrant the investigation, and (3) that the evidence sought is reasonably related to the subject of the inquiry."
The Attorney General has broad and well-established authority to issue subpoenas in connection with a civil investigation of a non-profit's conduct to determine whether to bring an enforcement proceeding. "Moreover, in evaluating the Attorney General's justification for the issuance of a subpoena, there is a presumption that (s)he is acting in good faith." The party challenging a subpoena issued by the Attorney General bears the burden of establishing the subpoena's invalidity….
Petitioner's subpoena request must demonstrate a "reasonable relationship to the subject matter under investigation and the public interest to be served." A party must respond to an investigative subpoena unless the information sought is "utterly irrelevant to any proper inquiry."
New York State has a public policy interest in ensuring the robust regulation of tax-exempt charitable entities like Respondent and Petitioner has authority to supervise and investigate such entities when misconduct is suspected.
Petitioner's Subpoena is focused on subject matter areas which fall within the statutory provisions that govern not-for-profit corporations. The Not-for-Profit Corporation Law, for example, provides that entities like Respondent may be formed only for charitable purposes, and that charitable assets may not be distributed to members, directors or officers. Charitable entities are also subject to express requirements under the N-PCL for lawful operation, including requirements for a process by which compensation is set; processes for acquisition and "sale or other disposition" of property; creating and presenting complete and accurate financial reports; a process for considering related party transactions; and a process for managing conflicts of interest.
The Subpoena's requests demand the type of material that will permit Petitioner to determine whether Respondent has complied with these requirements, including complete copies of Respondent's annual regulatory filings, financial transaction records, compensation records, and records of Board meetings and review. The documents called for will permit Petitioner to determine whether there has been any diversion of charitable assets—for example through unlawful payments to for-profit corporations held by the Brimelows or other VDARE fiduciaries. Article 7-A of the Executive Law authorizes the Attorney General to supervise charitable organizations that solicit in New York, and Article 7-A requires the Attorney General to monitor such organizations to ensure that, inter alia, a charity does not solicit contributions under false pretenses or use the contributions it receives in a manner that is not "substantially consistent" with the charity's stated purposes.
Respondent has raised constitutional objections related to the First Amendment and therefore had the initial threshold burden to make a showing that production of the information sought would impair its First Amendment rights. However, Respondent makes this argument on behalf of its donors and Petitioner has agreed, initially to redact donors' and volunteers' identities. Respondent has not established that the Subpoena would impair Respondent's own First Amendment rights.
Additionally, Respondent's filings themselves underscore the reasonableness of the Subpoena. Respondent admits the critical facts that first triggered Petitioner's scrutiny—Peter Brimelow, Respondent's founder and director, and his wife, Lydia Brimelow, also a director, used and continue to use a $1.4 million charitable asset as their personal residence.
Respondent argues that the Brimelows paid rent to live in the cottage beginning in April 2021, however the lease is between Lydia Brimelow and BBB, LLC, a West-Virginia for-profit corporation she manages, and Lydia Brimelow signed the document as both landlord and tenant.
Respondent's motion and accompanying papers fail to meet its burden of establishing the Subpoena's invalidity. Respondent, which has partially complied with the subpoena for months, has not established why providing a redaction log for its already-produced documents raises any First Amendment concerns or why continuing production would pose a threat to its existence.
Although Respondent argues that redactions are required to protect the identities of contractors—including writers who contribute to the website—these are precisely the records the Petitioner seeks to examine in its investigation of Respondent's alleged organizational misconduct. To the extent anonymity is used to mask violations of the law, "it is unprotected by the First Amendment."
For example, the only board member among four who is not a Brimelow family member is a known contributor. The Attorney General may probe this contributor's compensation as part of its investigation of conflicts of interest and board independence. And the Attorney General may seek the identities of other contributors to determine whether further conflicts of interest may exist.
Respondent's reliance on Americans for Prosperity v. Bonta (2021), is equally unavailing. That decision concerned only donor disclosures in statewide annual filing requirements, while expressly permitting subpoenas seeking the same information as part of a targeted investigation. Moreover, Petitioner has indicated a willingness to enter into a stipulation/order of confidentiality to further address any of Respondent's concerns….