Long Beach charity California Families in Focus loses tax exempt status

IRS California Families in Focus

The IRS has revoked the tax exempt status of Long Beach-based nonprofit California Families in Focus, but the group still promotes itself on its website and social media as having tax exempt status. Photo: IRS website.

UPDATE: Shortly after Q Voice News asked California Families in Focus about their tax exempt status being revoked, the group contacted the IRS and requested a reinstatement. The IRS reinstated their tax exempt status; however, due federal privacy laws about tax filings, an IRS spokesperson could not comment on whether or not  the IRS was aware that California Families in Focus had publicized themselves and solicited donations as a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit while their tax exempt status had been revoked.

Q Voice News made several attempts to contact Leslie Renee Smith and Maria “Angel” Macias to request copies of the information they submitted to the IRS regarding their reinstatement. Q Voice News wanted to see if they told the IRS that California Families in Focus had continued to operate as a 501 (c) (3) while their tax exempt status was revoked. Smith and Macias did not respond to our requests.

LONG BEACH — The IRS has revoked the tax exempt status of a Long Beach-based charity that has said it helps LGBTQ youth and the transgender community, but the group continues to promote itself as a 501 (c) (3) and solicit donations.

IRS revokes status

The IRS revoked California Families in Focus’ tax exempt status May 15, 2016, after the group failed to file taxes for three consecutive years, according to an examination of California Family in Focus’ tax records and the IRS website.

California Families in Focus was founded in 2002 by Maria “Angel” Macias, the group’s chief executive officer, according to the group’s website.

A nonprofit group can still operate when it’s tax exempt status is revoked, but it must be clear that donations are not deductible on federal income taxes, tax experts said.

However, California Families in Focus still identifies itself as a 501 (c) (3) on its website and social media and claims donations are tax deductible.

For example, on August 2, the nonprofit group posted on social media about a September conference it will be hosting and encouraged people to donate.

California Families in Focus

California Families in Focus promotes itself as a nonprofit, 501 (c) (3); however, the IRS revoked it’s nonprofit status in 2016. Photo: California Families in Focus Facebook page.

‘It’s a mess’

“It’s a mess to lose your exemption,” said Philip Hackney, an associate professor at University of Pittsburgh Law School, and a former IRS attorney in the exempt organizations division. “Charities can face large penalties, and it can create enormous problems for an organization that’s trying to operate as a nonprofit.

“It shouldn’t happen if you have people running the organization the way they should be,” Hackney said. “It’s very obnoxious for them to claim that they are tax exempt.”

In an interview, Leslie Renee Smith, the attorney and the board chair for California Families in Focus, said, “Their tax exempt status is not revoked.”

On its website, California Families in Focus says its mission is “to develop and provide positive and innovative events and social service programs for youth and their families to achieve empowerment and purpose,” but it doesn’t mention any programs or services.

In a July 26 post on social media, Macias said the website is being “relaunched” and “please check for updates, video and photos of all the amazing programs and events we’ve done and what’s in the works.”

How much money raised?

It’s unclear how much money California Families in Focus has raised since it’s tax exempt status was revoked and how that money has been spent. Q Voice News attempted a follow-up interview with Smith to ask those questions, but Smith couldn’t be reached for comment.

In a video for a December 2016 Spirit of Christmas luncheon that California Families in Focus hosted, Macias said the event was for the “GLTB community because nobody else was doing it.”

It’s unclear what Macias meant with that comment because she couldn’t be reached for comment.

In that same video, Macias said that every year California Families in Focus “helps thousands of women, children, and men living in domestic violence, drug, and rehab shelters.”

Q Voice News could not verify Macias’ statement.

The group’s 2017 Spirit of Christmas event was geared to Latina transgender women, according to a flyer.

Soliciting donations

Last year, California Families in Focus actively solicited donations on Facebook for its 5th Annual Latina Women’s Conference. In one post from July 28, 2017, the group said, “We need your help to raise money for our very important Latina Women’s Conference. Checks can be made out to California Families in Focus” and then an mailing address was given for people to send checks.

The post also includes a photo of a $3,000 check made out to California Families in Focus and said, “Match Kim Maddox’s donation.” Maddox was Macias’ wife, who passed away in late 2016.

Last week, California Families in Focus posted on Facebook that it’s planning a September an “anti-bullying and suicide awareness mini conference and resource fair.”

“These issues go hand in hand so if your passionate about either, please donate by sending a check,” the post said.

‘That’s a problem’

Zavia Sweeney, a professor at USC’s Marshall School of Business, says the situation is problematic.

“You can’t represent yourself as a 501 (C) (3) when in actuality, the IRS has revoked your tax exempt status,” Sweeney said. “That’s a problem right there.”

In an interview through social media, Macias, who wouldn’t return Q Voice News’ phone calls, didn’t deny California Families in Focus’ tax-exempt status had been revoked. Instead, she said a series of personal crises in 2013 forced her to relocate to Sacramento. In September 2016, her wife, Kimberly Maddox, a former Long Beach police detective and president of Long Beach Pride president, died after battling cancer.

During those three years, California Families in Focus’ mail wasn’t forwarded to her in Sacramento, Macias said.

“During my absence from Long Beach, all of our nonprofit mail was being sent to our old address in Long Beach, and it was not being forwarded so I had no reminders of filing,” Macias said.

Sweeney, on the other hand, said it was Macias’ responsibility to make sure her paperwork was properly filed to ensure California Families in Focus’ 501(c)(3) status remained intact.

“Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” Sweeney said. “By law, you should have filed. Things happen, but you still should have known. You should do everything to protect that status.”

Macias said, “We are awaiting action on the retroactive reinstatement from the IRS.”

Attorney general responds

But the reinstatement might not be that easy.

Under California law, a charity is required to notify the Attorney General within 10 days of any change in its tax-exempt status.

California Families in Focus did not contact them the Attorney General’s office, which is investigating any potentially improper behavior or if the charity should be suspended.

“Under our regulations, the Registry of Charitable Trusts may automatically suspend the registration of a charity whose tax-exempt status has been revoked by the Internal Revenue Service,” according to an email from the Attorney General’s press office.

“As such,” the statement continued, “the Registry will review the information and determine if the charity will be sent a notice of suspension of registration or if another action is warranted.”

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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