TurboTax Maker Linked to 'Grassroots' Campaign Against Free, Simple Tax Filing
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CCIA President Ed Black said in a statement, "We think it's important to help policymakers and the public understand what many already know: ReturnFree is unfair, unworkable and unwise."
The letters and op-eds 2014 there have been at least eight of them 2014 also appear on a new website, www.FairTaxRefunds.com, which Pflaster said her company created for CCIA. It resembles a similar previous site, www.StopIRSTakeover.org, which was also sponsored by the CCIA.
Another instance in which CCIA solicited a letter wasn't successful. Angela Martin, director of an Oregon nonprofit, said a PR professional gave her a sample anti-return-free filing letter last year for her organization to send to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
Martin knew the caller, Colin Cochran, who works for the firm Hilltop Public Solutions.
Cochran used "a lot of words that advocates would be sympathetic to, like 'oh, it'll hurt people with English as a second language,'" Martin said.
Martin was skeptical. So she asked Cochran who he was representing. He said he was working for the CCIA and, when asked, said yes, that Intuit is a member.
Cochran confirmed the details of his discussion with Martin, including that he was working for the CCIA. His firm boasts on its website of a " winning grasstops approach" 2014 "grasstops" is industry lingo for recruiting the support of community leaders.
Two other letter-writers told ProPublica they were approached by lobbyists, though it's not clear who the lobbyists were representing.
One letter-writer, Richard Smith, the president of the NAACP Delaware State Conference, was approached by a longtime acquaintance with information about how return-free filing would take dollars out of poor people's pockets. Smith felt so strongly he fired off a letter to Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., and encouraged other local NAACP leaders to do the same.
Smith said the acquaintance, Anne Farley, told him that if return-free filing was adopted, the government would stop offering free tax filing help to low-income communities. (In fact, none of the bills on return-free filing propose that.)
When ProPublica told Smith that Farley is also a registered lobbyist, he said he was now questioning the information she gave him.
"We may have to retract so far based on my research," Smith said. "I didn't question her."
Lobbying records for Farley's firm, First State Strategies, do not list Intuit or the CCIA among its clients. The firm's website does advertise "grass tops advocacy campaigns." Farley and First State Strategies did not respond to requests for comment.
Dennis Huang, executive director of the L.A.-based Asian Business Association, also told ProPublica he was solicited by a lobbyist to write about return-free filing. When the lobbyist sent him a suggested op-ed last summer and told him the proposal would hurt small businesses, Huang wrote an op-ed in the Asian Journal that claimed Asian-owned businesses would not only spend more time paying taxes, but they'd also get less of a refund each year.
Huang declined to disclose the lobbyist's name, but acknowledged he didn't really do his own research. "There's some homework needed," he said.
Oregon's Martin did some research on return-free filing and now supports it. She also co-published a post about the issue and the PR efforts related to it because, she says, she was alarmed that other nonprofits could easily agree to endorse a position they did not fully understand.
"You get one or two prominent nonprofits to use their name, and busy advocates will extend trust and say sure, us too," Martin said.