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UB Foundation Activities Supports Chris Collins

As reported Wednesday in UB student newspaper the Spectrum, UB Foundation Activities, Inc. contributed $2,500 to Collins for our Future on March 13, 2010. The foundation kicked in an additional $60 to the Collins campaign on June 30 of that year.

UB Foundation executive director Ed Schneider and Collins campaign spokesman Stefan Mychajliw did not return calls from Artvoice seeking comment—although Schneider, in an email to the Spectrum, characterized the donations as “an honest mistake.”

According to Schneider, the payments were actually for the staff of the Center for Industrial Effectiveness (TCIE) to attend a breakfast honoring Collins. Schneider explained that the UB Foundation “provides business services for several organizations associated with the university. These organizations generate their own income, and deposit with us.” Among the services TCIE provides is Lean Six Sigma training. However, the disclosure report does not list TCIE as the contributor to Collins’s campaign, but rather, UB Foundation Activities, Inc.

The disclosure came to light because the donations were reported by the Collins campaign, and then made available on the New York State Board of Elections website.

So what’s the problem? According to Internal Revenue Service regulations, a 501c3 not-for-profit organization is forbidden to engage in political activity. UB Foundation Activities is such a group. Here’s the language, straight from the IRS:

If any of the activities (whether or not substantial) of your organization consist of participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office, your organization will not qualify for tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(3).

Also coming under scrutiny is the University at Buffalo’s involvement with various 501(c)(6) groups like the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and the Business Council of New York State. These not-for-profit groups are very active in political campaigns and lobbying efforts.

The Buffalo Center Chapter of the United University Professions is calling for a referendum demanding that the state university break all ties with these entities. From the proposed referendum:

Whereas, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and the Business Council of New York State engage in lobbying and partisan political activity unrelated to the legitimate mission of SUNY, and, whereas, the University at Buffalo is listed publicly as a member of both, UUP shall take action to ensure that the University at Buffalo immediately cut all ties to and financial support of these organizations and to all other organizations engaged in such activity.

UUP shall also take action to ensure that the University at Buffalo President and other officers resign from any positions in their official capacity on the Boards of these organizations, and similarly cut ties to any other organizations stating or implying that the University at Buffalo, or any of its officers acting in their official capacity, endorses or engages in political activity not directly related to the University’s educational mission.

The Buffalo Niagara Partnership lists the University at Buffalo as a member of the “President’s Circle” of major investors—a level that includes Bank of America, Delaware North Companies, Rich Products, and First Niagara Bank among others. UB President Satish Tripathi sits on the board of directors of BNP. Calls to the Partnership seeking comment on this arrangement were not returned.

Paul Pfeiffer, investor and public relations director of BNP’s sister 501c6 organization known as Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, explained that UB’s membership at his group was free. Only one other group, Empire State Development Corporation, gets the same treatment—although ESDC used to ante up at least $100,000 until the state budget crunch. Former UB vice president for external affairs Marsha Henderson still serves as an appointed director of BNE, even though her state employment with the university has ended.

According to Rob Lillpopp, spokesperson for the Business Council of New York State, no such free ride exists for UB at his Albany group. He pointed out that SUNY Albany and SUNY Binghamton are also dues-paying members, and SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher is a non-voting member of their board. Lillpopp would not divulge the amount UB pays, but he explained that a company with under 15 employees would be charged $300. Membership cost rises from there. UB, frequently called the area’s largest employer, has 7,106 full-time equivalent employees. Nobody rides for free. Lillpopp said I could file a FOIL with UB if I wanted to find out how much they pay for membership.

Among the stated goals of the Business Council of New York State is the privatization of public assets. “In some cases we are [looking at that],” said Lillpopp, “but in other cases we are looking to public and private educational institutions like UB, or private ones like RIT or Clarkson…all of those combined together help bring an innovation economy to New York.”

After our conversation was over, Lillpopp called back to explain that the Business Council of New York State was “very much in support of the SUNY 2020 agenda. We lobbied for it, and we backed it, and we’re happy that it’s happening. Before that we were backing the previous versions of it. We’ve been very big on it.”

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