She disclosed the arrangement to the Internal Revenue Service initially, but in subsequent years she checked “no” on the IRS Form 990 where it asked whether the charity did business with any entities owned by its director. A “yes” answer would have required her to provide more financial details. Lawyers who specialize in nonprofits say that’s to allow scrutiny by both the government and the public of whether the nonprofit’s funds are being used for charitable purposes, rather than private gain.
The charity — which was the subject of a complaint to the IRS by a watchdog group in May — faced other significant accounting issues, tax filings signed by Rockeymoore Cummings show: One filing left out revenue and expenses; another overstated revenue by $433,642, more than a quarter of its budget. A Kansas-based foundation said it stopped funding the charity amid questions about how its money was spent.
Over five years, the charity took in more than $8 million, tax filings show. As it wound down operations last year, it owed the unsatisfied funder nearly $146,000, which it paid back with money Rockeymoore Cummings said she donated from proceeds on the sale of her home. Another $257,000 in debt was forgiven, according to the tax documents.
Rockeymoore Cummings, who is running for the congressional seat vacated by her late husband, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), says the tax-filing errors were honest mistakes that were later corrected and did not personally benefit her.
“I’m a military brat. I mean I’m a Girl Scout, I was a Brownie,” she said. “We were inculcated with the values of doing everything that was right, and that is just who I am as a person.”
During an initial hour-long interview, she referred some questions to the accountant who handled the books for her consulting firm, Global Policy Solutions, and the nonprofit Center for Global Policy Solutions. But the accountant, Gerald Abrams, did not respond to requests for comment, and Rockeymoore Cummings did not answer follow-up questions. Her explanations of some issues either shifted or were contradicted by others as The Washington Post researched this story.
“It’s hard to see how they would avoid all these different ways that the IRS is asking for who you do business with,” said Marcus Owens, who led the tax-exempt organizations division at the IRS from 1990 to 1999 and is now with the law firm Loeb & Loeb.
Benjamin Leff, a law professor and nonprofit tax specialist at American University, said he found it “alarming” that the tax filings did not show the relationship between the charity and Rockeymoore Cummings’s business.
“This is exactly the kind of situation that requires that kind of attention to detail and proper accounting and disclosure,” he said.
'Vehicle for giving back'
Global Policy Solutions, which Rockeymoore Cummings founded in 2005, specializes in helping advocacy organizations with public relations, policy development and planning. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation hired the firm to direct a campaign to fight childhood obesity in 2007. Other clients included the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, the National Academy of Social Insurance and the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly.
In 2012, Rockeymoore Cummings filed paperwork to create the nonprofit center, which listed her consulting firm as its registered agent. She told Rollingout.com the charity was “our vehicle for giving back to society.”
In a recent interview, Rockeymoore Cummings said she launched the charity because her consulting firm was receiving some payments in the form of grants, which caused paperwork headaches for a for-profit firm. She also thought the charity would allow her firm to be more proactive, “and do work that we wanted to do but we weren’t getting clients for.”
Rockeymoore Cummings recruited a board of trustees and arranged for the two enterprises to share costs. Her firm’s employees stayed on its payroll; the charity — which had no employees or office space of its own — reimbursed the firm for time and expenses spent on the charity’s work.
Over the next five years, the charity reported receiving more than $8 million in grants for campaigns focusing on childhood obesity, the racial wealth gap and other issues. The firm was doing the same sort of work as before, Rockeymoore Cummings said, such as organizing advocacy efforts, putting on conferences and producing policy papers. Only now, the grants went to the charity.
The charity’s tax filings did not disclose that it was paying management fees — nearly $400,000 over five years — to a firm owned by the charity’s director.
Rockeymoore Cummings said the charity “wasn’t hiring GPS per se,” but rather “carrying their share of the expenditures.” She said her accountant recommended the management fee as a way of recouping unforeseen costs — which turned out to include time she spent writing grant applications.
“It was something that I did through the LLC,” she said, referring to her firm’s status as a limited liability company. “And I did it for the benefit of the nonprofit.”
The charity’s tax filings state Rockeymoore Cummings’s salary as $145,253 in 2014; $152,155 in 2015; and $152,238 in 2016. She told The Post she later realized that those figures combined her salaries from the charity and her consulting firm, rather than listing just her pay from the charity.
The National Legal and Policy Center filed an IRS complaint in May, saying the charity’s appearance of operating as a combined entity with the consulting firm potentially violated rules for tax-exempt status. Rockeymoore Cummings, who at the time chaired the Maryland Democratic Party, said in a statement that the allegations were unfounded and an attempt “to tarnish my personal reputation, professional work and public service.”
The IRS is prohibited by law from saying whether it has initiated an examination.
Philip Hackney, a former IRS attorney who teaches law at the University of Pittsburgh, said the cost-sharing arrangement itself appears permissible. But he said disclosing the relationship would be “an important aspect of filing a return.”
Though failing to do so alone is unlikely to draw a penalty, he said, it could invite IRS scrutiny “to make sure that there was nothing else going on.”
Rockeymoore Cummings referred questions about the disclosure lapses to her charity’s lawyer, who denied involvement in those decisions. Rockeymoore Cummings also said she would make her accountant available for an interview, but she didn’t, despite a reporter’s repeated follow-up attempts.
After the initial online publication of this article, a spokeswoman for Rockeymoore Cummings forwarded an email from the accounting firm taking responsibility for the errors and several revisions. “As [the errors] were brought to light, I took personal responsibility to address with my own funds because I deeply believed in our mission and did not want their error to impact our employees, partners or our important work,” Rockeymoore Cummings said in a statement.
Top funders move on
In 2016, the Ford Foundation, one of the charity’s major funders, said it would stop the grants after the following year. The foundation was shifting strategy, spokesman Joshua Cinelli told The Post.
The next year, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation discovered the charity’s 2015 tax filing did not include the required listing of revenue and expenses, foundation spokesman Jordan Reese said. The charity’s accounting firm, Abrams, Foster, Nole & Williams, submitted a revised 2015 tax filing, accompanied by a statement blaming computer error for the omissions.
The Johnson Foundation, which was the charity’s largest funder, said it then alerted the charity that the revised filing incorrectly categorized foundation funding as “government grants.”
The revised filing also overstated revenue for the year by $433,642. Rather than operating in the black that year, as its audited financial statements asserted, the charity operated $382,554 in the red, according to a second revision of the filing.
The Johnson Foundation stopped funding Rockeymoore Cummings’s charity in 2017, Reese said, because officials thought “it was time to explore and invest in different approaches.” He praised the charity’s work as “a key resource” and, despite the tax filing errors, said the charity completed its financial reporting “in a satisfactory and timely manner.”
Rockeymoore Cummings did not answer follow-up questions about the errors.
In October 2017, the charity sought more money from another major funder, the Kansas Health Foundation, which had given nearly $1.4 million for the charity to oversee a program addressing public health issues in five Kansas communities. The foundation said it responded by asking what had happened to money already allotted.
“We didn’t feel like we were getting answers to those types of questions,” said foundation spokeswoman Kristi Zukovich.
The foundation ended its relationship with Rockeymoore Cummings’s charity that December, months earlier than originally planned, and requested the return of nearly $146,000. Zukovich said an audit determined that money had not yet been spent on the foundation’s behalf.
But the charity’s tax filings show it no longer had that money in the bank.
On Oct. 12, 2017, Rockeymoore Cummings announced she would run in the next year’s Democratic primary for Maryland governor.
When first interviewed for this story, she said grants to the charity plummeted because funders learned of her plans to launch a political campaign. “The foundations that were supporting the nonprofit basically pulled out,” she said. “They are, as you know, notoriously averse to partisan politics.”
She also said the charity’s lawyer caught the errors in the 2015 tax filings as her team prepared for the scrutiny of a campaign: “We needed to dot our i’s and cross our t’s, to make sure that everything was correct.”
Her campaign spokesman later said that in reviewing notes after the interview, Rockeymoore Cummings realized that it was the Johnson Foundation that caught the errors, not the charity’s lawyer.
At the end of 2017, Rockeymoore Cummings’s firm owed the charity $103,149, according to the charity’s tax filing. The charity owed $145,857 to the Kansas foundation and had $264,107 in unpaid expenses, the filing said.
After selling her house in Northwest Washington for $896,000, Rockeymoore Cummings donated $145,665 to the charity to help settle accounts. “What I had to do was basically step up and make sure that I was covering the obligations,” she said. “And I did.”
The charity’s 2018 tax filing also lists $257,019 in revenue as “forgiveness of debt.” Rockeymoore Cummings told The Post she didn’t know to whom the charity might have owed money or what the notation meant. The email from the accounting firm provided after initial publication of this article said the debt was a loan from Rockeymoore Cummings herself, which she subsequently forgave. The tax filings do not list any loans from her.
Rockeymoore Cummings and the consulting firm took out a $25,000 business loan in 2017 at 18 percent interest, court records show. The bank filed a claim after she fell behind on payments the next year. Rockeymoore Cummings did not respond to questions about the loan.
Trustees of the Center for Global Policy Solutions spoke of Rockeymoore Cummings’s leadership in glowing terms. “She was the star and the motor force and the energy and the imagination,” said board member Robert Borosage.
They professed little knowledge of the accounting issues. “You’d probably be better to talk with Maya about that,” said board treasurer Andricus Hutcherson.
She relinquished the party post to run for Congress, competing in a crowded Feb. 4 Democratic primary that in the deep-blue district will likely determine who wins the seat.
Rockeymoore Cummings’s gubernatorial campaign website touted her work as founder of both “a small business” and “a nonprofit think tank and action organization,” naming both Global Policy Solutions and the nonprofit center.
Her congressional campaign website refers to her as a “small business owner since 2005.” But specific references to Global Policy Solutions, and its affiliated charity, have been removed.
This report was updated to reflect information provided after initial publication by a spokeswoman for Maya Rockeymore Cummings.