Portland-based lead-safety activist Tamara Rubin has been asked to leave the nationwide nonprofit she founded and built over the past five years, the Lead Safe America Foundation.
The split has fractured the organization's board. Some are siding with Rubin, the ousted executive director, and disavowing the actions of the board president, treasurer and attorneys; others are urging her to cease the lead activism she's done since discovering her children had lead poisoning in 2005.
Ellen Klem, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Justice, confirmed that the Charitable Activities Section of the department is investigating the Lead Safe America Foundation, but declined to give additional details.
"We don't reveal anything else during an investigation," Klem said.
The split comes at a high-profile time for the organization, with the dangers of lead thrust into the spotlight by the crisis in Flint, Michigan, and at Portland Public Schools, where one-third of the water fixtures have elevated lead levels based on recent testing. The Lead Safe America Foundation was in the midst of a marketing campaign to release its feature-length documentary, "MisLEAD," in coming months. As part of the split, the foundation and Rubin also are struggling over who has rights to the film.
In an Aug. 11 amended filing with the secretary of state, the foundation board removed Tamara Rubin as the registered agent, instead listing Catalyst Law, a Portland firm that specializes in assisting nonprofit groups.
No one at Catalyst Law nor the person newly listed as the foundation president and secretary, Laura Clark of Mansfield, Massachusetts, responded to requests for comment.
However, in internal board emails obtained by the Portland Tribune, the foundation board president appears to be accusing Rubin and her husband, Len Rubin, of mismanagement and using funds without board authorization.
Len Rubin had worked as communications director for the foundation and music director for the film, making about $14,000 this year, according to Tamara Rubin. Rubin also said that her work as executive director for the foundation had been volunteer, with the approximately $60,000 she made this year being part of her contract with the foundation for directing the documentary.
Tamara Rubin made a public announcement at about 11 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 25, on her Facebook profile that the foundation was being investigated by the Oregon Department of Justice.
"While I cannot be 100 percent certain, it is my distinct impression at this point that the lead industry is behind a complaint to the Oregon DOJ that has resulted in an escalating series of events designed to shut down my film, my advocacy work and the nonprofit Foundation that I founded … ," Rubin . "This has progressed from what everyone dismissed as merely a nuisance 'fishing expedition' to a pretty crazy 'witch hunt' to a no-holds-barred, all-out intimidation war aimed at dismantling the organization, and stopping the film from ever being seen by the general public."
Rubin said the legal troubles seemed to suddenly begin after a Feb. 25 appearance in Flint, Michigan, with presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. She worries that her national high-profile speech attracted retaliation from the lead industry.
"Basically, I'm being persecuted," Rubin told the Portland Tribune. The Rubins spoke with the newspaper on Friday morning, saying that they were in need of legal assistance and didn't know where to turn.
"There seems to be a well-organized campaign to smear and discredit Tamara," Len Rubin said. "There's a list of dozens and dozens of preposterous allegations."
Rubin said she loaned the foundation money in the early days and worked on contract for free or a deferred salary most of the time.
A 2013 tax filing by the nonprofit shows no staff compensation and states on page 18 that the nonprofit is "wholly volunteer-run." The 2014 filing says "no paid staff" in 2014. The nonprofit had a liability of $90,400 that year.
Rubin says the only payments she received were loan repayments, contract payments or director's fees for the documentary.
A big problem might be how she kept the books. Rubin is a database designer by trade and Len Rubin said she had developed her own software to track the foundation's finances. During the DOJ investigation, the foundation spent months putting five years of transactions into QuickBooks software, but Len Rubin said it has been a difficult transition. He said the Oregon Department of Justice will not look at their documentation in its native format and that is the only thing that will exonerate them.
Len Rubin said the only conclusion he can come to is that the Department of Justice is incompetent or corrupted by the lead industry.
"We have been documenting for five years the incredible corruption of this industry," he said. "It's like out of a bad movie. A really bad movie."
Klem, the justice department spokeswoman, said the accusation of collusion with the lead industry is absurd.
"If that were true I would quit today, as I grew up in Flint," she said. "If that was true I would know about it. There is nothing to that accusation."
Internal board communications
The Rubins said they hired lawyers and accountants to review foundation documentation and were surprised that, in Tamara's words, those individuals were "so aggressive in protecting the board that it would entail throwing us under the bus."
Foundation board President Clark, who is listed on the website as a board member since October 2015, wrote in an email message to board members that Rubin's Aug. 25 Facebook post was "very concerning."
"It is filled with inaccurate information and very damaging to LSAF," Clark wrote to fellow board members.
Clark told her fellow board members that foundation Treasurer Caron Katz and attorneys from Catalyst Law group acted quickly to remove Tamara and Len Rubin. Clark apologized in the email for not informing the rest of the board of the action sooner.
"We felt that we needed to take action quickly, as Tamara has basically been out of our control, and we believe is at risk of doing further damage to the organization," Clark wrote.
She added that even after the board asked Tamara to stop working for the organization, $35,000 from a recent raffle was spent and a $4,500 unauthorized cash withdrawal was attempted from the foundation's Paypal account.
Rubin flatly denies these allegations, saying the raffle money had been spent as it was received. She handed over credit cards and financial documentation when asked, and only automatic bill payments hadn't been stopped.
Len Rubin said the board had asked his wife to sign a gag order, but also extended an offer of employment as an outreach coordinator.
Clark wrote in the message to the board that that offer was rescinded.
"During the meeting (which I was on the call for), Tamara was reluctant to accept the offer of employment, and admitted that she has been avoiding having reportable income to preserve the Rubins' eligibility for government benefits," Clark wrote to the board.
Rubin also denies this, saying that her words have been misinterpreted. She says during a conversation about her salary requirements Rubin said she would have to make a certain amount for it to be worth a full-time job commitment, and otherwise she would prefer to be a volunteer.
Board members did not respond to requests for comment, except for Howard Mielke, a professor of pharmacology at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans.
"I have enormous sympathy for her because she's become sort of a lightning rod" in the controversy over lead, Mielke said of Rubin. Mielke said he also had firsthand experience with lead industry opposition to his work and did not dismiss the Rubins' theory that the state probe and board discontent could be the result of a corporate conspiracy to discredit them.
"The lead industry is a very powerful industry," Mielke said. "I don't think that's unbelievable at all."
Mielke said he hopes the Lead Safe America Foundation can continue its work in the face of the allegations and controversy.
"In my opinion, the board hasn't done their homework to find out what Lead Safe America is really up against and facing," he said.
This story was updated from its original version to clarify that the Oregon Department of Justice is investigating Lead Safe America Foundation, not Tamara Rubin; that the Rubins knew the attorneys and accountants work for the Foundation; and that the board president accused the Rubins of financial mismanagement rather than embezzlement.