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Under cloak of secrecy, dark money nonprofit targets Birmingham law firm

From the beginning, Forbes’s “BanBalch.com” website set out to tarnish the law firm by claiming to expose “unsettling controversies surrounding Balch & Bingham,” much of which stems from allegations, inference and speculation.

A mosaic of BanBalch headlines.

A California-based, dark money organization has set up shop in Alabama. It appears the move has substantially improved the group’s financial outlook and altered its core mission.

Because of the group’s federally protected status, it is impossible for the public to know who is pouring cash into Consejo de Latinos Unidos — translated as United Latinos Council — but a state tax lien and its CEO’s website may offer a peek at what might be hiding behind the nonprofit’s dark-money veil of secrecy.

Founded in 2001, and originally headquartered in Los Angeles, CDLU’s stated mission, according to reports was to “foster, encourage and develop educational opportunities and programs in Latino communities.”

Leaving its Latino-centric advocacy roots, the current website says the group’s “primary mission is helping to provide urgent and life-saving medical care for those in need with nowhere else to turn.”

Although it relocated to Birmingham sometime between 2013 and 2014, CDLU has never registered with the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office — and its board of directors is still located in California and elsewhere.

In 2017, it appears CDLU once again found an added purpose for its activities far from its previously stated missions.

CDLU’s CEO, Kevin Brendan Forbes, who goes by his initials “K.B.” launched a website in 2017, on which he targets Birmingham-based law firm Balch & Bingham.

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Mother Jones characterizes Forbes as a “self-styled ‘child of the Reagan revolution,’ [who] grew up in a mixed household in a Los Angeles suburb.” Forbes also worked for far right-wing commentator and one time Republican presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan, as well as media-mogul and former Republican presidential contender Steve Forbes. (The men are not related.)

Why a leader of a nonprofit would devote daily energy to attacking a law firm is not entirely clear, but it seems to have begun with what Forbes refers to as the “Newsome Conspiracy Case,” which involves an extended court battle between Burt Newsome, a Birmingham attorney, and Balch & Bingham.

Not only did CDLU’s focus change when Forbes became close to Newsome, the organization’s fortunes began to improve, as well.

Forbes is considered the driving force behind the group’s ventures in Alabama. He is also personal friends with Newsome. Facebook posts show both Newsome and Forbes’ wives enjoying social events on multiple occasions.

There is a direct friendship between the wives of Forbes and Newsome. They have been friends since at least 2016 and posts show a number of public interactions since then.

Forbes reserved the website “BanBalch.com” shortly after the Newsome and Forbes families formed a friendship, and the website’s first articles were aimed squarely at Newsome’s lawsuit with Balch & Bingham.

From the beginning, the website set out to tarnish the law firm by claiming to expose “unsettling controversies surrounding Balch & Bingham,” much of which stems from allegations, inference and speculation.

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Under the banner of his nonprofit, Forbes has also taken further steps to attack the firm’s largest clients.

Forbes has taken credit for costing Balch & Bingham hundreds of thousands of dollars in client fees while also remaining fixated on the firm, writing Newsome a check to settle the disputed lawsuit with CDLU as mediator.

Why would CDLU offer itself as a mediator in a private lawsuit especially given the fact that Forbes is not an attorney?

From a ragtag blog to a more sophisticated web presence, BanBalch.com has expanded its coverage to include those associated with Balch & Bingham.

Veteran politicos who asked not to be directly quoted in this article to avoid being dragged into Forbes’ intrigues suggest that those with other darker motives could use the site for a broader political agenda. These insiders question whether political operatives are now feeding Forbes opposition research and money to do their bidding.

As a federally sanctioned nonprofit, CDLU must complete an annual tax filing.

Federal Form 990, the annual statement that must be filed by all IRS recognized nonprofit organizations, shows that in the past five years, annual gross income of CDLU averaged $7,030. The last 990 filed for the year 2018 shows CDLU finishing the year with a $12,363 deficit, and all the 990s filed by CDLU for the past decade show the nonprofit has never paid anyone a salary.

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While the 990 for 2019 is not due until November of this year, a tax lien from the state of Alabama filed on January 3, 2020, suggests that in the first three months of 2019, CDLU paid someone or some number of people between $186,000 to more than $500,000. The lien for $11,671.73 was for unpaid withholding tax to the state of Alabama — including up to a 25 percent penalty.

Depending on the number of people paid and the amount each person was paid, this lien represents a minimum of $186,000 in compensation paid and a maximum possibility of more than $580,000.

As a 501(C)(3), Forbes’ organization is not required under federal law to publicly disclose donors. As a charitable organization, it is barred from engaging in political activity or supporting political candidates, and while most “dark money” groups are 501(C)(4)s for this reason, (C)(3)s operate with similar opacity in regard to their funding sources, though many publicly disclose their donors in the interest of transparency.

501(C)(3)s are also required to remain true to their founding purpose unless they notify the IRS in advance of the change in purpose.

An organization with a long history of little income and zero salaries appears from the lien documents to have paid more in compensation in the first four months of 2019, than it had collected in gross income for more than five years. Where did the money come from and what was CDLU doing to attract this kind of investor?

In his writings, Forbes has made it clear that paying Newsome would make the attacks on Balch & Bingham and the firm’s clients go away.

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Excerpts from an article Forbes has posted at least twice summarize the central focus of his efforts:

So, we ask, would it not have been cheaper to simply resolve the Newsome Conspiracy Case for $3 million? If Balch & Bingham had simply reached out to us, the CDLU, and tried to resolve the Newsome Conspiracy Case in early 2017, this blog would not exist and our advocacy efforts at the CDLU would not be focused on educating the public, law enforcement, legislators, corporate leadership, and institutional investors on Wall Street about Balch & Bingham’s alleged unsavory if not criminal conduct. When Newsome originally wanted to settle this matter, back in 2015, his legal team asked for three things: An apology. The end of the tracking of Newsome’s banking cases by Balch partners. $150,000 for revenue lost from the alleged defamation. Balch rejected the offer and now that decision has cost them millions and millions more to come.

Forbes’s words would seem to indicate that he set out to harm Balch & Bingham to force them to pay Newsome.

Is Forbes attacking the firm’s clients to coerce a payment to Newsome? Did someone pay CDLU hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2019, as is indicated by the tax lien. Did Forbes pay his friend Newsome all or any of this money? Where did the money come from and who did Forbes pay?

Nonprofit organizations like CDLU do not have to reveal their donors. But during 2019, Forbes’ attacks on Balch & Bingham’s clients took on a wide-ranging field of subjects.

Politicos, who spoke with APR, posed the following questions: Did someone recognize that Forbes had created a communication channel through which they could accomplish goals that had nothing to do with Burt Newsome? Was a rival law firm paying Forbes to attack Balch to steal Balch’s clients? Could environmental groups or their supporters be paying Forbes to attack utility companies? Were Washington-based lobbying firms paying Forbes to bolster their efforts to take Balch’s national lobbying contracts?

The answer to these questions would easily be resolved if Forbes revealed who was paying him.

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Forbes has indicated in writing that “this blog would not exist” if someone would just write Newsome a very large check.

Forbes has attacked clients of Balch & Bingham and told the clients the attacks would go away if they forced Balch to settle with Newsome, according to APR‘s sources.

A veteran of hundreds of legal skirmishes who, like others, asked not to be quoted because of Forbes’ propensity to write unfounded accusations, said Forbes’ actions in his opinion rose to extortion and tortious interference with business relationships.

Forbes has never fully explained why his nonprofit moved from California to Alabama, nor why CDLU’s mission changed from Latino advocacy in Los Angeles to attacking a Birmingham law firm and its client.

When social media hoaxes and fake news are trade craft, there is a ready market for blogs like BanBalch.com, insiders believe.

The question that may need answering by law-enforcement is what is going on at CDLU that would allow them to operate Banbalch.com under a cloak of federally sanctioned secrecy?

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Bill Britt
Written By

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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