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PETA's charity status questioned
By Matthew Cella

    An organization that tracks crimes against business interests filed a complaint yesterday asking the Internal Revenue Service to revoke the tax-exempt status of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

The 12-page complaint, filed by Ron Arnold, executive vice president of the nonprofit Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise (CDFE), argues that the Norfolk-based animal rights group should be stripped of its charitable status. The complaint says PETA supports domestic terrorist groups, steals trade secrets and assaults business executives.
    "PETA is required by law to be operated exclusively for the charitable purpose of prevention of cruelty to animals," the complaint says. "PETA's pattern of encouraging unlawful activity goes back more than 10 years. Its activities are completely inconsistent with its allegedly charitable purpose."
    The complaint accuses PETA of acting as a "conduit for information" for the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), which was singled out in congressional testimony by the FBI regarding domestic terrorism last month as "one of the most active extremist elements in the United States."
    It also claims PETA funds were used in the legal defense funds of one ALF member who pleaded guilty in 1995 to destroying a University of Michigan laboratory conducting animal tests.
    The complaint recounts several episodes where PETA members were arrested during protests for stunts ranging from slashing leather clothes in a New York store to setting a fire on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to protest government plans to help the pork industry.
    "I don't think the average person realizes PETA's a tax-exempt organization," said Alan Gottlieb, president of the Bellevue, Wash.-based CDFE. He said the real offense is that U.S. taxpayers are subsidizing PETA's activities by permitting PETA donors to deduct contributions as charitable contributions on their income tax returns.
     PETA founder and Executive Director Ingrid Newkirk yesterday characterized the complaint as "one half-truth linked to another half-truth with a dollop of misstatement."
    "It didn't look like anything new," she said. "Some of it is highly offensive."
    Miss Newkirk said the issue continues to be one of free speech.
    "It's not a crime to say what you think," she said. "Otherwise we would have been locked up."
    But she acknowledged that the loss of tax-exempt status could be devastating for her organization, which drew more than $13 million in donations for the tax year ending July 31, 2001.
    "Anytime an organization loses its tax-exempt status, there are some donors who will give less or not at all," she said, adding that was the center's true goal.
    Miss Newkirk also accused the center of preying on post-September 11 fears about domestic terrorism.
    During congressional testimony before the Committee on Resources subcommittee on forests and forest health probing the increasing threat of ecoterrorism on national forest lands, PETA general counsel Jeffrey S. Kerr acknowledged the organization's "sometimes creative and theatrical means of communicating our message in a tabloid era."
    But Mr. Kerr testified that "PETA has never engaged in violence or threats of violence against any person or entity, no matter how heinous their animal abuse."
    The chairman of that subcommittee, Rep. Scott McInnis, Colorado Republican, yesterday sent a letter to Miss Newkirk independently of the center's complaint to the IRS asking her to clarify PETA's relationship with the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), ALF's sister organization.
    "As a nonprofit organization with tax-exempt privileges and the incumbent public policy obligations that status entails, PETA has a responsibility to explain the full extent of its involvement with and contributions to environmental terror groups like ELF and ALF," Mr. McInnis wrote.
    An IRS spokesman yesterday couldn't confirm that the center's complaint had been received but said auditors do conduct investigations that are based on information received from outside sources.
    Still, he said, federal tax law would preclude him from confirming or denying whether an investigation into PETA's tax-exempt status was under way.
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