• Donald V. Watkins

GBHS: Flirting With Disaster

By Donald V. Watkins ©Copyrighted and Published on June 12, 2018


In return for its favored tax-status, a charitable nonprofit promises the federal government that it will not engage in “political campaign activity” and, if it does, IRS regulations mandate that the charitable nonprofit will lose its tax-exempt status.


In general, according to the IRS, "no organization may qualify for section 501(c)(3) status if a substantial part of its activities is attempting to influence legislation (commonly known as lobbying). A 501(c)(3) organization that has filed a 501(h) election may engage in some limited forms of lobbying, but too much lobbying activity risks loss of tax-exempt status."


GBHS has filed a 501(h) election for its lobbying activities, according to Chairman Art Edge.


Under the Internal Revenue Code, 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity.  Violating this prohibition may result in the denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes. 


Certain activities or expenditures may not be prohibited depending on the facts and circumstances.  For example, certain voter education activities (including presenting public forums and publishing voter education guides) conducted in a non-partisan manner do not constitute prohibited political campaign activity. In addition, other activities intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, would not be prohibited political campaign activity if conducted in a non-partisan manner.


However, voter education programs, voter registration activities, and get-out-the-vote drives with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, constitutes prohibited participation or intervention.


Has GBHS Crossed the Line on 501(c)(3) Political Activity?


On June 5, 2018, Alabama held partisan primary elections. Courtney Underwood, GBHS’s Director of Marketing and Outreach, posted this politically-charged message on her Facebook account:


“VOTE TODAY! Your vote matters more than you know.


And for the record GBHS folks, let us NOT forget that it was a County Commissioner (coughdavidcarringtoncough) that sank our ship for property. This voting cycle is for County Commissioners! These are the elections that truly matter because these are the elections that truly affect our lives the most. I don’t care who you vote for, just vote!


Today, I’m voting for Heath Boackle for Sheriff, Jerome Dees for House District 54 and Lou Willie for District Judge Place 9. There’s a few more but those are my 3 faves.“


Ms. Underwood followed Allison Black Cornelius from Blackfish Consulting to GBHS after Ms. Cornelius became the chief executive officer at GBHS. Her Facebook post was a thinly veiled political endorsement of three specific candidates. She also opposed incumbent County Commission candidates who were running for re-election. 


Here is the background on Underwood’s political activity:


In January 2015, GBHS took over Jefferson County's contract for animal control and shelter services in unincorporated areas and municipalities with fewer than 5,000 residents from Birmingham-Jefferson County Animal Control. Along with the contract came use of the county's deteriorating shelter in Woodlawn. In January 2016, this contract was renewed for three years.


In 2016, Ms. Cornelius began discussing a proposal to relocate all of GBHS's operations onto a 27-acre parcel of the Trinity Park site in North Titusville. GBHS’s $30 million plan hinged on the City of Birmingham and Jefferson County, which jointly own the property, agreeing to donate the site to GBHS.


In February 2018, Jefferson County approved the sale of part of the property to a data processing company, effectively killing GBHS one-campus plan. This is the transaction Courtney Underwood was referencing when she said, “And for the record GBHS folks, let us NOT forget that it was a County Commissioner (coughdavidcarringtoncough) that sank our ship for property.”


Carrington, who was a key player in brokering the 2018 property sale deal, did not seek re-election. Candidates Heath Boackle, Jerome Dees, and Lou Willie lost their elections, despite Underwood’s political endorsement for “GBHS folks”.


Underwood’s get-out-the-vote message/political endorsement on June 5th was not an isolated incident. During the 2016 Presidential election, Ms. Cornelius reportedly campaigned for Republican nominee Donald Trump by openly telling GBHS employees they should vote for him. She later canvassed these employees, one at a time, to determine which candidate received their vote, according to our confidential sources. 

Additionally, Cornelius teamed with the Alabama Puppy Mill Project, a GBHS "partner", and its founder, Angie Ingram, to support Senate District 18 Republican candidate Garlan Gudger, Jr., in his race against incumbent Paul Bussman during the June 5th primary. Gudger won the election.


During the 2017 legislative session, Bussman voted “no” on “Atti’s Law”, a bill to regulate puppy mills in Alabama that was backed by GBHS and Ingram’s group. The bill died in the legislative session.


Ingram and Cornelius celebrated Bussman’s defeat on the Facebook pages of the Alabama Puppy Mill Project and Ms. Cornelius, respectively.


“Moonlighting” on GBHS’s Time


When Allison Black Cornelius was hired as CEO in January 2015, GBHS’s board of directors expected Cornelius to wind-down her involvement with Blackfish, a private consulting company founded and headed by Ms. Cornelius. She was hired to serve as GBHS’s full-time chief executive officer. On its IRS Form 990 for 2016, GBHS reported that Ms. Cornelius spends 60 hours per week working as CEO at an annualized salary of about $133,933.


Even with the demands of her 60-hours per week job at GBHS and the board’s expected wind-down of her Blackfish activities, Ms. Cornelius still found time to “moonlight” for Blackfish.


On Tuesday, May 8, 2018, Allison Black Cornelius took a break from her GBHS work to lead a “Standards for Excellence” grad class under the banner of Blackfish Consulting for the Richland County Foundation’s Osborne Meese Academy in Mansfield, Ohio. Cornelius attended the Foundation’s annual meeting the day before and was a featured speaker at the Foundation’s Annual Luncheon.


The Foundation’s May 8th “grad class to nonprofit leaders” cost $25 per person to attend and was promoted as follows: “Allison Black Cornelius teaches the Standards of Excellence for the Foundation's Osborne Meese Academy. She is back in town and ready to inspire you again. Allison is the founder of Blackfish Consulting and is a true blackfish, a template of inner strength and perseverance….”.


During his June 1, 2018 interview, GBHS Board Chairman Art Edge claimed that Ms. Cornelius’ dissociation from Blackfish was complete. In reality, Ms. Cornelius (a) continues to promote herself as Blackfish’s “President” on the company’s website, (b) maintains a Linkedin profile that lists her as Blackfish's "Principal", and (c) continues to book “for-profit” classes under “Blackfish Consulting”. As such, it is clear that Ms. Cornelius actively conducts Blackfish’s business on GBHS’s time.


Art Edge also claimed that all speaker fees earned by Ms. Cornelius since she became CEO in 2015 have been donated to GBHS. However, GBHS’s 2016 and 2017 financial statements do not reflect any such donations in the sections labeled “Summary of Significant Accounting Policies” and “Notes to Financial Statement”. In contrast, the direct and in-kind donations of other GBHS “insiders” are reflected in these sections of the financial statements.


“Lip-Service” on Ethics


Ironically, while Ms. Cornelius was comingling GBHS's “non-profit” business with Blackfish's “for-profit” business at the Richland County Foundation event, the screen behind her displayed a “conflict of interest” presentation as she addressed the grad class in an academic setting.


In practice, Ms. Cornelius has demonstrated a cold and callous attitude toward those who have raised questions with her about conflicts of interest and unethical conduct with respect to GBHS “partners”, board members, and her own activities. When she speaks of standards of ethics for GBHS, it is mostly “lip-service”. The case with Heather Halldin explains why.


“Yall need to sue the daylights out of this woman,” wrote Ms. Cornelius to Angie Ingram on February 8, 2015. “This woman” was a demeaning reference to Heather Halldin, a Pennsylvania resident and member of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club, USA. Halldin was part of a group of women who “blew the whistle” on Angie Ingram, GBHS board member Lisa Thompson and their Birmingham group of dog “rescuers” in the aftermath of a November 22, 2014 “rescue” operation that was conducted in Wheaton, Missouri.


Heather Halldin had emailed GBHS officials one hour earlier to report allegations of financial improprieties in connection with pre-auction fundraising activities conducted by Brittney Wilk and Lisa Thompson. These women were the Alabama coordinators for Cavalier Rescue USA when the Missouri “rescue” operation occurred. Halldin also questioned GBHS “partner” Angie Ingram’s role in the “rescue”, as she was a Cavalier Rescue USA volunteer. The dogs at the auction were purchased in Ingram’s name.


Halldin stated that the mission of Wilk, Thompson, and Ingram, as agents of Cavalier Rescue USA, was to “collect and hand over all of the dogs they obtained at the auction – no matter by what means – to Cavalier Rescue USA.” Halldin alleged that, “Brittney Wilk and her friend members of the Cavalier Club of Birmingham have kept those dogs for themselves.”


Halldin requested an “accounting” for the “people who poured out their hearts, and wallets, to support [Thompson, Wilk and Ingram]” and an explanation of “what is being done to correct the situation.” She ended her email by asking GBHS these questions:


“Are you willing to be associated with these people? Because their behavior tarnished every institution with whom they associate. These people used YOUR truck to take these dogs from the auction to Birmingham – posted pictures of your truck. Won awards for their activities. Is the entire community seriously going to condone, reward, or even ignore this behavior?”


Instead of receiving an “accounting” and an explanation of “what is being done to correct the situation,” Halldin and her fellow “whistleblowers” were met with a coordinated campaign of resistance to transparency regarding the Birmingham Cavalier rescue group’s operations, post-auction foster care, Cavalier adoption program, and ownership information on the Cavaliers that were “saved” at the auction. Then Thompson and Ingram initiated bullying legal maneuvers against Halldin and the other “whistleblowers”.


This resistance and bullying is described in detail in my May 6, 2018 article titled, “Was GBHS Complicit in Stonewalling Cavalier ‘Whistleblowers’?


On April 8, 2015, Angie Ingram followed through on Allison Black Cornelius’ advice and filed a "defamation" lawsuit on behalf of GBHS board member Lisa Thompson, Christina Carnes, Amanda Johnson, Jasmine Lawson, Kara Ingram, Brittney Wilk, and herself against Karen Pearsall Orange, Cathy Moon, Heather Halldin, Liz Moe, Nancy Ann Friedman, and Lisa Swoboda in the Jefferson County, Alabama Circuit Court. On April 13, 2015, the plaintiffs added Peggy Kenny as a defendant to the "defamation" lawsuit. Later on, they added Shelby County, Alabama resident Beth Reed to the lawsuit.


On February 6, 2017, the truth emerged in Lisa Thompson’s “defamation’ lawsuit when the plaintiffs finally admitted in a court filing that: (a) Christina Carnes and Angie Ingram took ownership of two “rescued” Cavalier King Charles Spaniels that were purchased at the auction for $24,200.00 using GoFundMe donor money; (b) Jasmine Lawson took ownership of one Cavalier that was purchased for $4,500.00 using donor money; (c) Mandy Johnson took ownership of a Cavalier named Gideon that was purchased for $4,300.00 using donor money; and (d) Brittney Wilk took ownership of a Cavalier named Happy Go Lucky that was purchased for $3,750.00 using donor money.


The plaintiffs also acknowledged that Brittney Wilk and Lisa Thompson made the decision to adopt the two $24,200.00 Cavaliers to Angie Ingram and Christina Carnes. Wilk and Thompson also made the decision to adopt one of the $4,500.00 Cavaliers to Jasmine Lawson. Angie Ingram made the decision to adopt Gideon to Mandy Johnson. Lisa Thompson adopted Happy Go Lucky to Brittney Wilk.


Despite the obvious conflicts of interest and serious ethical questions raised in Ms. Halldin’s February 8, 2015 email, Ms. Cornelius gave an affidavit of support to GBHS board member Lisa Thompson and the other plaintiffs in the “defamation” case. Chairman Art Edge did not know whether GBHS’s legal counsel or Angie Ingram’s legal team prepared Cornelius’ July 10, 2015 affidavit.


Instead of providing the requested “accounting” and addressing the conflicts of interest and ethical questions raised by Heather Halldin, Allison Black Cornelius encouraged Angie Ingram “to sue the daylights out of this woman.” This is exactly what GBHS board member Lisa Thompson and the other plaintiffs did. Cornelius then used her position as GBHS’s CEO to support Lisa Thompson’s legal claim for monetary damages by giving Thompson a very favorable affidavit.


We found no disclosure of this Cornelius/Thompson litigation support transaction in GBHS’s financial statements or board minutes. By any definition, this arrangement was an “insider” transaction.


Lisa Thompson’s “defamation” lawsuit is still pending in court. However, we have learned that an insurer for one “whistleblower”/defendant paid settlement money to the plaintiffs to get its policyholder released from the lawsuit. We do not know how much, if any, of this money has made its way to Lisa Thompson -- thanks to Ms. Cornelius' affidavit.


Ms. Cornelius declined an opportunity to participate in an interview for this article.


Stay tuned as we reveal more shocking developments in this evolving GBHS scandal.


PHOTO: GBHS CEO Allison Black Cornelius teaches the "Standards for Excellence" for the Richland County Foundation's Osborne Meese Academy on May 8, 2018 in Mansfield, Ohio.


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© 2020 by Donald V. Watkins, P.C.