New leaders of Las Vegas fallen-cop charity vow more transparency and efficiency

Las Vegas fallen-cop charityThe new leadership of Las Vegas’s Injured Police Officers Fund say it will strive for more transparency and less overhead at a charity that long has shrouded its operations in ways that allowed rumors of inefficiency and unfairness to fester.

President Chelsea Stuenkel and Vice President Jesse Kommel-Bernstein told me in a recent joint interview that they’ve been educated by past stories about IPOF. Among other points, the stories noted that according to its public tax returns, IPOF over the past two decades on average has spent nearly twice as much on overhead as it has in official grants to fallen officers. In some years accounting expense alone exceeded grants, even though the IPOF apparently never has even produced an audited financial statement.

The pair said they would consider posting on its website the IPOF’s annual tax return, a public record that federal rules recommend but don’t mandate be so displayed, as well as the nonprofit’s by-laws, which would help explain the process for handing out grants in respect of fallen officers. Some social media posts from several years ago but still online have criticized the process as unfair, secretive and infected by favoritism. Before 2018, the annual IPOF tax return stated flatly–and by federal law falsely–the return was “not made available to the public.” Hey, I got them simply by asking!

Founded in 1982, IPOF is run by a volunteer board of sworn officers from more than a dozen law-enforcement agencies in southern Nevada. IPOF is a fully qualified 501(c)(3) and contributions it receives are tax-deductible by the donor. The IPOF aims mainly to cover out-of-pocket costs incurred that are not covered by workers compensation and health insurance.

Stuenkel is a sergeant with 11 years at the Nevada Department of Public Safety. Kommel-Bernstein is a sergeant with 15 years at Las Vegas Metro Police. Both assumed office last year after the COVID-19-related death of Erik Lloyd, a Metro lieutenant.

They spoke after IPOF, at my request, once again sent me a copy of the charity’s latest tax return, for 2020. The return showed that per its books the IPOF gave out the highest amount of grants–$116,615, to a total of 11 recipients–in at least 20 years. Perhaps as a result, overhead–management and general expenses–was less than grants made for the first time since 2003.

But Stuenkel and Kommel-Bernstein said the annual tax return–the only financial document the charity makes public–doesn’t tell the whole story. That’s because the IPOF often sets up and monitors separate accounts for families of fallen officers to which the public can donate directly and specifically. At the end of three months, Stuenkel said, the balance is turned over to the family without any deduction by IPOF for its expenses. Some of these accounts have amassed hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations, although Stuenkel, citing individual privacy, wouldn’t specify individual sums or the total amount. The cash flow of these accounts is not included in the IPOF’s annual tax return on the theory the charity is not making decisions on allocating the funds but rather acting as an agent.

In my view, the total amount raised should be disclosed in a footnote somewhere, especially since the nonprofit’s official efforts are involved.

For decisions the IPOF does make, Stuenkel said a three-person committee of the IPOF board gathers information, relying on the individual law enforcement agency to declare whether the injury, illness or death was in the line of duty, and then determine payment. The IPOF pays a death benefit of $25,000 and, for non-fatal cases, a maximum of $10,000 to cover costs not paid by other insurances. Stuenkel said this has included items like child care during a recovery and replacement cost for a personal cell phone damaged as the result of an on-duty traffic accident.

Because Las Vegas Metro considers officers contracting COVID-19 to be a line-of-duty event, the IPOF paid a $25,000 death benefit last year to the family of Erik Lloyd, a Metro lieutenant who at the time of his death in July 2020 was the IPOF president, Stuenkel said. A separate account for designated donations was established for Lloyd’s family. Stuenkel would not say how much was collected. His widow, Minddie Lloyd (who ran unsuccessfully for Clark County Clerk in 2018), remains IPOF’s sole paid employee, receiving $20,000 a year as the part-time project director.

If your home is anything like the New To Las Vegas world headquarters, you periodically receive cold robocalls asking for contributions from sketchy law enforcement-themed causes. I call almost all of them “faux charities” because, despite their spiel of helping cops, they are in fact political action committees that spend almost all the money raised on fundraising and overhead and make minimal or no political donations, the ostensible reason for the pitch. For some examples, click here and here.

For these outfits, the fundraising efficiency ratio–the percent of donations remaining after fundraising expenses–was often 20% or less, meaning that 80 cents or more of every donated dollar goes poof. The charitable commitment ratio–the percent of total expenses in furtherance of the stated mission and a standard measure of nonprofit efficiency–was frequently 0%. The Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance, a major charity watchdog group, frowns on fundraising efficiency or charitable commitment ratios below 65%.

Judging by the calls I have received, a new Nevada law requiring such causes to first be registered with the state and make filings before asking for money has been ineffective, thanks to inaction by the Nevada Secretary of State’s Office and the Nevada Attorney General’s Office. Not a single outfit that has called me since the law took effect October 1 has been registered.

The IPOF is nothing like that. For starters, it is a tax-exempt charity properly registered with the state, and has been for years. The IPOF does no direct solicitations and doesn’t make cold calls. In almost all years, including 2020, its fundraising expense has been zero, so the fundraising efficiency ratio was 100%. It can’t get any better than that. Contributions received, which in 2020 totaled $224,447, came mainly from a handful of private companies and other charities, net proceeds from several annual fundraisers, and the odd gift from the public after a police death or serious injury gets media attention. While not technically a contribution from the public, the actively managed IPOF endowment, which topped $2 million on December 31, 2020, threw off another $231,000.

As the charitable commitment ratio is ordinarily calculated from a financial statement, the ratio for IPOF last year was 68%. That met the BBB standard–for only the third time in 20 years–and was certainly a lot better than that of the faux charities. Still, over the past two decades the IPOF charitable commitment ratio has averaged a poor 51%. Paring back on overhead would improve this ratio.

According to its tax filings, the IPOF lists one and only one mission: “provide financial assistance to families of officers injured or killed in the line of duty.” Yet, as I wrote here three years ago, the IPOF has stirred some muttering within the police spouse community because the tax filings listed significant contributions to unspecified organizations. Even if law enforcement-related, they by definition weren’t “families.” The 2020 tax return listed $24,805 in such donations, again with no recipients identified. Stuenkel defended the donations made as permissible “community involvement.”

“I have no issues being transparent and am proud of the work our organization does,” she wrote in an email setting up our interview. Perhaps that promised transparency push will reveal these names in future years.

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