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City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson has been promoting his initiative to end gun violence, Peace Not Guns, Inc., since he began his political career as a member of the state House of Representatives in 2009.
Its website, which features photos of Johnson as well as various events the organization has sponsored, describes Peace Not Guns as a non-profit dedicated to education, mentoring and community initiatives.
It also states that it is a registered 501(c) 3, which means that it has permission from the federal government to raise and spend money without anyone—either donors or the organization—having to pay taxes.
That statement is not true.
Peace Not Guns, Inc. is not now and never has been a federally registered non-profit. There is no record of it in the IRS database and it has never filed any of the financial reports that are required for such organizations. It also does not appear in state listings of approved charities.
Christopher Sample, Johnson’s chief of staff, readily admitted as much when contacted by AxisPhilly, and said that the councilman has not kept any financial records for Peace Not Guns.
“There are no financials for it at all. We don’t raise any money for it. It’s just a concept, really, just (Johnson’s) way of talking about the issue. He might do a roundtable for Peace Not Guns, or a rally, but there’s nothing financial for that,” Sample said. “If some people are complaining that the councilman says it’s a 501(c) 3, then I’ll talk to him about that, and tell him to stop doing that.”
According to sources familiar with the office, Peace Not Guns did in fact raise funds, and various news reports and press releases dating back to 2008 appear to support that claim.
First, the councilman’s own description of Peace Not Guns on the organization’s website clearly states that it creates and runs programs. “Peace Not Guns, Inc. became an organization geared towards creating programs that would focus on violence prevention and education… through mentoring forums, education and resources for job training and employment,” the website states. “In addition, Peace Not Guns, Inc. engages in several workshops with over 800 kids on the topic of conflict resolution, anger management and anti-gun education.”
There are several reports about programs run by Peace Not Guns, including an annual basketball tournament in his council district’s Chew Playground and Recreation Center, a 2011 awards ceremony for its “Have You Done It Yet” scholarship initiative at Yesha Banquet Hall in the Point Breeze section of Philadelphia, and a $1,500 college scholarship.
In fact, in a 2011 press release on its company website, Walmart calls itself a “proud supporter” of a Peace Not Guns’ scholarship. By close of business Friday, a spokeswoman for the company was unable to specify exactly what that support entailed, who solicited the donation, or who received the check.
In a statement via email, Johnson’s director of legislation Steve Cobb, who is an attorney, said: “Councilman Johnson organized Peace Not Guns nearly a decade ago as a way to respond to the gun violence that impacts our community. The chief value of Peace Not Guns has been as a way for Kenyatta Johnson to engage people in our community on this important issue. In 2011, Peace Not Guns was selected to identify a local student to receive a $1,500 scholarship sponsored by Walmart. The student was identified and all of the funds in question were awarded to her.”
This limited and vague explanation is hardly a shining example of openness and transparency.
Philadelphia has a long tradition of politicians who enrich themselves and advance their own political careers through the inappropriate use of non-profits. Recent examples include former state Senator Vince Fumo, who was convicted on various charges and served eight years in prison, and former Speaker of the House of Representatives John Perzel, who was also convicted and was recently released from prison.
It is possible that programs run by Peace Not Guns may not have cost much, but it defies belief that they cost nothing at all.
Which raises several questions: First, if Johnson is not raising funds through Peace Not Guns, where is the money coming from? Second, if he is accepting money for Peace Not Guns, are there any donors out there who wound up claiming tax exemptions when they were not legally entitled to them?
And finally, if he is raising money through Peace Not Guns, how can anyone be sure he’s using those funds appropriately if we can’t see the books? As the councilman’s chief of staff has said, there are no books to look at.
“It’s definitely not ethical to represent yourself as a 501(c) 3 when in fact you’re not one, and it’s possibly illegal,” said Zack Stalberg, CEO of the good government watchdog group Committee of Seventy. “It’s extremely sloppy at the very least, and it leaves the door open for all kinds of misbehavior…. And if they’re accepting money but not fully providing the benefits that they suggest, then it’s even worse.”