Black director of statewide anti-violence coalition alleges state agency is ‘anti-Black,’ after termination of funding, hiring of embattled ex-police officer

The executive director of the Iowa Coalition for Collective Change said despite some missteps, her anti-violence organization was treated unfairly by the state division that axed its funding.

Luana Nelson-Brown, director of the Iowa Coalition for Collective Change, said despite some missteps, her anti-violence organization was treated unfairly by the state division that axed its funding.

Luana Nelson-Brown, executive director of Iowa Coalition for Collective Change.

Key points: 

  • Iowa Coalition for Collective Change gained its tax-exempt status from the IRS in 2019, but it was revoked on May 15, 2021, after the coalition failed to file required tax forms.
  • The Crime Victims Assistance Division terminated its grant relationship with the coalition on Sept. 6, 2022, due to its loss of tax-exempt status and what it called “compliance challenges.”
  • The division, part of the office of the Iowa Attorney General, said funding the coalition had become “increasingly difficult and risky.”

The Black executive director of the Iowa Coalition for Collective Change, which lost its nonprofit status from the IRS – and later its funding through Iowa’s Crime Victims Assistance Division – said the division engages in “extreme anti-Blackness,” is difficult to work with and terminated its funding without an appeal process. 

The coalition, which supports organizations that conduct homicide and violent crime services with training, certification, technical assistance and policy advocacy, lost its tax-exempt status from the IRS in 2021, due to a misunderstanding over who was required to file the paperwork and complications during the Coronavirus pandemic, said its executive director, Luana Nelson-Brown. But, the coalition was able to keep operating and receiving funding from the Iowa Attorney General’s Office Crime Victim Assistance Division (CVAD) through fiscal sponsorships. But, state officials said “compliance challenges” and the coalition’s failure to regain its tax-exempt status caused it to place the coalition on a corrective action plan and later terminate the relationship altogether. 

“We went straight from corrective action plan to fiscal sponsor, which nulls out the corrective action plan, directly to termination,” said Nelson-Brown, whose job description included responsibility for filing the tax forms. “There was no probation. None of that.” 

Nelson-Brown said Blacks make up a disproportionate share of homicide victims in the state, which hasn’t implemented needed advocacy services that specifically address the disparity. Black Iowans make up 4% of the population, but are 36% of the state’s homicide victims, according to 2016-2020 data from the Iowa Violent Death Reporting System. She said the funding of advocacy services for homicide victims is “miniscule” compared to funding for domestic violence and sexual assault organizations.

She said the state is negligent in providing resources for advocacy services to survivors of crimes other than domestic violence and sexual assault, which contributes to disparities. She said her coalition, and another Black-led organization, Mothers Against Violence, which questioned “harmful practices in the justice system” was abruptly unfunded by the division in 2017.  

Sandi Tibbetts Murphy has served as director of the Crime Victims Assistance Division since Aug. 2021. She said the loss of the coalition’s tax exempt status is what led to the termination of the coalition’s funding, not “anti-Blackness.” She said the coalition was treated the same as any other organization they fund, had the same grant, compliance and verification processes and requirements and deadlines. 

“Certainly, the primary challenge that we had in continuing to fund it was the fact that they had lost their nonprofit status with the IRS and having that official designation from the IRS is the primary way that you qualify as a nonprofit to be eligible for our funding,” she said. “The coalition lost its funding because they failed to file the needed documentation to keep their nonprofit status.”

“These were all issues that have been ongoing with (the coalition) that further supported, in our opinion and our financial assessment, the ongoing risks that continuing to fund (the coalition) and its current state presented to us – the amounts and the ongoing nature of the compliance issue,” she said. 

The coalition began as a program with Monsoon Asians and Pacific Islanders in Solidarity, which later became its fiscal sponsor in 2018, with the goal to transfer grant responsibilities to the coalition once it obtained tax-exempt status. Eventually, the coalition branched out on its own with Nelson-Brown, as its executive director, as she sought and obtained the organization’s nonprofit status, effective April 11, 2018, according to IRS documents. When the coalition later lost its tax-exempt status due to a misunderstanding over the tax filings and complications during the Coronavirus pandemic, it entered into a different fiscal sponsorship on Feb. 28, 2022, with another nonprofit, EMBARC, Nelson-Brown said. When that fiscal sponsorship ended, the coalition secured other fiscal sponsorship candidates, but the division had since moved to sever ties, she said.  

The state’s grant relationship with the coalition terminated as of Sept. 30, 2022, according to a letter dated Sept. 6, 2022, and the division stated it wouldn’t allow the coalition to enter into another fiscal sponsorship. The letter cited missed deadlines, late performance reports and failure to submit any audits as required, some of which Nelson-Brown denies.

“It’s more apparent than ever that funding ICCC has become increasingly difficult and risky,” the letter stated. 

“That is the line that I feel like is slanderous to our agency,” Nelson-Brown said. ‘I don’t think we are any more at risk than any other program. It’s beyond unfair. It’s untrue.”

She added: “To call our program risky because we lost our status during a global pandemic is – what’s the word I’m looking for – it’s brutal is what it is.” 

Brown said it’s “heartbreaking” and “extremely odd” there is no way to appeal the termination. 

“It was definitely a slap in the face,” she said. “It really deterred me from everything. It really shut down any course of action. There was no due process. It was completely unjust.” 

Iowa Attorney General Chief of Staff Lynn Hicks said Nelson-Brown asked the division to rescind the termination letter. He said they listened to her concerns about “non-compliance” issues and took that “under consideration.”

“Those things are not the main reason, though, for the decision to end the contract,” he said. 

The office stood by the letter, which wasn’t shared publicly and only shared with the coalition and the division’s board, he said. 

Tibbetts Murphy said an appeal can occur during the competitive grant process, but not at the point in the process they’re at now. 

“There is no right to appeal the decision to terminate this contract,” she said. 

Source: Canva Pro

Hiring concerns

Hicks said Nelson-Brown previously worked at the division from 2011-2018, as a grant coordinator, reviewing grant applications, making recommendations, preparing contracts and working with individually-funded programs to monitor their compliance. 

Nelson-Brown labeled the division as “anti-Black” due to what she said was a history of “excessive scrutiny” of culturally-specific programs, sanctions, loss of funding, lack of due process and dismissal of her concerns about a division hiring decision. 

“So I know that for a fact,” she said.

Nelson-Brown said she shared her concerns with Hicks and another staffer after she found out the division hired a former Iowa City police officer as a compensation specialist, who had resigned amid controversy, Emilio Puente. According to the Iowa City Press-Citizen, during an arrest, Puente was recorded on video punching a Black man in the head several times who was on the ground. 

Nelson-Brown was concerned because the man’s mother, Monique Washington, is a homicide advocate at a nonprofit organization in Cedar Rapids who frequently works with the division. In a letter to the division, she said given Puente’s treatment of Washington’s son, he should not be working on behalf of survivors, “particularly Black survivors in Iowa.”

Hicks said it’s not fair to say the division is “anti-Black” or that they were “motivated” to terminate the coalition’s funding because of Puente’s hiring. 

Washington, mother of the Black man who was punched, said she couldn’t believe Puente was hired by the division. She said she didn’t want to sit next to him in meetings or interact with him in any way. It had been hard enough for her to watch the video of her son being arrested and punched in the head by Puente. She said she had cried so hard she couldn’t see through her tears.  

“As a mother, it made me feel horrible to think of him working for this prestigious organization but it also made me feel horrible because my son was clearly on the ground and this man gets up out of nowhere and hits him three times while he’s handcuffed and not resisting,” she said.

Why would the division want to be “associated with” the person who did this — an agency that helps people at the lowest point in their lives, she said. 

Nelson-Brown emailed Hicks and other staffers on Sept. 28, requesting a meeting about Puente’s hiring, among other concerns, she said. Hicks said when Nelson-Brown brought her concerns about Puente’s hiring to them, they listened, but it didn’t factor into the decision to terminate her contract, which had occurred earlier in September. He said they had made internal changes so that Puente would not come into contact with Washington. 

“Because obviously, we can see why she would be concerned about that,” he said. 

Tibbetts Murphy said Puente has since resigned from the division as of Dec. 9, 2022.

Scope of work

“The reasons for the termination are what was stated in the letter, and there’s nothing more. So there wasn’t any bias towards Luana or (the coalition,)” Hicks said. “We are dedicated to serving the community, the Black and Brown community that (the coalition) did – and I would add they did great work.”  

The problem, said Tibbetts Murphy and Hicks, is that the work the coalition was engaged in – “doing direct service” with clients – is not what the coalition was contracted to do. 

“There was no over-scrutinization or over-emphasis that was applied in this case,” Tibbetts Murphy said. “I think we tried our best to find some way to continue to fund them.” 

Tibbetts Murphy said the coalition was contracted to provide training and technical assistance — not direct service. She said direct service is “boots on the ground, working with communities or members of the community for different purposes.” 

Training and technical assistance is when an organization “is there to be a resource, not only to provide training, but to answer ongoing questions from those doing the direct service”  she said. 

“And the contracts that CVAD had with Luana and Iowa Coalition for Collective Change was for that second type of work – to provide training, technical assistance and resources — to those advocates who are doing the work with crime victims across the state,” she said. 

“So our funding did not encompass any work that (the coalition) did doing the direct service work themselves,” she said. 

Nelson-Brown said the coalition worked directly with families at times, helping them at court proceedings and with their needs. The coalition has worked extensively with the family of Michael Williams, a Black man from Grinnell who was lynched in 2020.

Hicks said there has been a dedicated effort to reach out to the minority community and the division had changed its approach from a “law enforcement approach” to a recognition that a lot of “people in the population” don’t want anything to do with law enforcement and are skeptical. 

“We’ve had a lot of training that we have held or sponsored for advocates on how to serve that community, specifically those Black and Brown communities and immigrant communities,” he said. “So it’s a huge priority for this office to do so.”  

The Crime Victims Assistance Division is the designated recipient of several federal formula grants, which it distributes to programs across the state in a competitive process, Tibbetts Murphy said, including: 

  • Victim service programs
  • Homicide survivor programs
  • Other community-based programs, as well as law enforcement, prosecutors and witness coordinators

The division also has a training, advocacy and outreach team that works with the public, advocates and law enforcement. The office operates Iowa VINE, an automated statewide notification program, and Track-Kit, which tracks sexual assault exam kits as they move from hospital to law enforcement to the lab, which was sought to deal with a state backlog, Tibbetts Murphy said. 

She said the division’s grant process is every three years with annual budgets. The division provides grant funds totaling $2,042,000 million to 10 victim service programs for advocacy and services to survivors of homicide. The coalition’s contract was $267,680, for Oct. 2020 – Sept. 2021. The division also provides $3,151,000 to 29 victim service programs to provide advocacy and services to general crime victims, other than domestic/sexual assault, she said. 

The coalition’s Corrective Action Plan was signed by division administrators on Dec. 21, 2021. The plan, obtained by Black Iowa News, suspended the coalition’s grant and claims. The letter stated the coalition must regain its nonprofit status and submit an audit for 2020, before June 30, 2022. It warned if the coalition hadn’t regained its nonprofit status, the grant award for 2022 would be forfeited and reverted and it would be ineligible to apply for funding during the division’s next competitive grant cycle.

After the coalition’s contract was terminated, the division redirected the funds to two organizations that are providing training and technical assistance work with homicide survivors and general crime victims. The organizations are the Central Iowa Trauma Recovery Center, led by Alyson Simmons, a former board member of Nelson-Brown’s, and Crisis Intervention Service. Their work will continue for a year until the grant application process opens, Tibbetts Murphy said. She said Crisis Intervention Service also has a separate contract to conduct advocate work. 

The division’s board makes the determination to award grants, but “the handling of grant issues and decisions about continuation or termination in the interim,” are up to division staff, based on compliance issues and the requirements grantees have to follow in their contracts, Tibbetts Murphy said. 

If the coalition has their nonprofit status reinstated, they would be eligible, if they chose to participate in the competitive application process just like any other potentially eligible agency, she said. If something happened after that, there would be a right to appeal, but just from the termination decision. 

The division and the coalition “strategized various ways” the coalition could continue doing the work, they said. Tibbetts Murphy said fiscal sponsorships were new to the division and “not something we’d done before.” She said it was designed to be a temporary way for the coalition to continue its work until their nonprofit status was reinstated.

Tibbetts Murphy said the situation was about financial risk, not only for the fiscal sponsor, but for the division, due to federal rules. 

Paperwork Snafus

Nelson-Brown said the problems began when she thought her fiscal sponsor submitted the 990 tax form for the coalition, but it hadn’t, and later there were problems completing an audit. Then, Coronavirus pandemic slowdowns impeded her efforts to find a tax attorney and auditor, she said. 

So the coalition searched for a fiscal sponsor so it could continue its work while it awaited reinstatement, she said. The coalition found a fiscal sponsor that allowed them to run the program, but not the finances, Nelson-Brown said. But when it was finalized, the agreement gave the sponsor total control, which wasn’t the best option for everyone, she said.

When Nelson-Brown sought and found new potential fiscal sponsors, the division had terminated the contract, she said. 

“So I tried to think of everything that might cause a problem for CVAD and have a solution for anything that might be problematic,” she said. 

Brown disputes certain aspects of the termination letter. She said the division got the dates they were “independently” funded wrong, the grant application deadline, the number of audits due, among other points, like late claims, which affect “most culturally specific programs.” 

The future of the Iowa Coalition for Collective Change

A letter found Friday on the IRS website by Black Iowa News dated July 6, 2022, appears to show the coalition has possibly regained its tax-exempt status. Nelson-Brown said she plans to confirm the letter with her tax attorney and the IRS.

Hicks, the chief of staff, said Friday, the division was unaware of the letter and possible reinstatement but it “doesn’t really change anything” because the funds have already been obligated. When the coalition officially regains its tax-exempt status, it is eligible to apply again, he said. 

Nelson-Brown emailed the division a letter about the issues and asked for it to be placed in her file:

“Lastly we thought we would also update you that we have received notice of the reinstatement of our tax exempt status effective May 12, 2022.  Please attach to our file as well,” stated the email.

Meanwhile, Nelson-Brown said the coalition plans to rebrand itself as a justice advocacy agency as opposed to “just a homicide agency” because that’s what their clients have said they want and need.

“Because what we’ve learned in our work is that, as a homicide agency, we were focused a lot on the trauma that victims experience and trying to alleviate that trauma,” she said. 

The coalition is seeking donations and philanthropists, and Nelson-Brown said she’s developing a membership program. 

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