Federal Complaint Filed Against Proposed Richmond Coliseum Developers NH District Corp.
The redevelopment of the Richmond Coliseum and the surrounding neighborhood is being proposed by a non-profit spearheaded by Dominion CEO Tom Farrell, but a new federal complaint alleges the group is abusing its non-profit status.
Jeff Thomas, a Richmond native who now lives in DC, filed the complaint against NH District Corp. with the IRS on Monday. Thomas alleges in the complaint that the non-profit is not operating as a charity. Instead, he says, the group is acting more like a lobbyist.
“Based on all publicly available evidence, this organization is actually a political organization that is set up to benefit private investors by passing legislation through Richmond City Council,” Thomas told VPM. “If the IRS finds that is in fact the case, then that would be illegal.”
A copy of the federal complaint obtained by VPM News has three main allegations: That NH District Corp. is violating IRS rules about non-profits participating in political lobbying and is providing a substantial benefit to private individuals and organizations. It also alleges that the organization did not release an electronic copy of their tax returns when Thomas requested them. Under federal law, all non-profits must make their tax returns available to the public.
You can read Thomas’ full complaint to the IRS here.
NH District Corp. was set up to lead the bid for the redevelopment of the Richmond Coliseum and the surrounding neighborhood, historically called Navy Hill. They’re proposing what would be one of the largest economic development projects in Virginia history. It includes a $350 million public bond to pay for a new downtown arena and more than $1 billion in private development, including apartments, offices and retail space. The project is backed by Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney.
There are a slate of for-profit companies and consultants affiliated with NH District Corp., including the company Capital City Partners. That company, headed by developer Susan Eastridge and architect Michael Hallmark, has already spent more than $20 million on designing and developing the proposed development.
Jeff Kelley, a spokesperson hired by NH District Corporation, denied that the organization engages in excessive lobbying or other activities that violate federal laws around non-profits. In response to questions from VPM News, the developer posted the tax returns Thomas was seeking on its website Monday afternoon.
As evidence for his complaint, Thomas points to a series of email blasts and tweets sent out by the Navy Hill developer directing the public to lobby their city council members.
“We need YOU to voice your support for the Navy Hill project at tonight’s Richmond City Council meeting. #navyhillrva,” read an August 14 tweet sent out from the developer’s official twitter account.
Thomas also submitted two news stories to the IRS. One of them, first published by VPM News earlier this year, found the developer’s spokesperson had ghostwritten newspaper columns for local university presidents. Another recent article alleged that an NH District Corp. partner, the non-profit Help Me Help You Foundation, had reimbursed pro-Navy Hill protesters for transportation and child care.
“I have never seen such abuse of 501(c)(3) laws, and they are playing a shell game with this nonprofit,” Thomas said.
Thomas also provided the IRS with his email exchanges with NH District Corp. spokesperson Jeff Kelley from earlier this month, where Thomas was attempting to request the nonprofit's tax filings, known as 990s. Kelley initially said no 990s were available, but later admitted that tax filings covering July 2017 through June 2018 were available.
Kelley told Thomas via email that he would only release the 990 if Thomas sent in a written request through snail mail. He also suggested Thomas could “inspect and copy” a version at his office. Thomas is alleging that it is illegal to not provide an electronic copy upon request.
As Richmond City Council continues to vet this economic development project, Thomas said it’s important they be able to scrutinize the developer’s finances.
“I shouldn’t have to go to the IRS to get this so-called public charity to follow the law,” Thomas said. “From ghostwriting columns to paying fake supporters, it is clear the backers of this project are untrustworthy and lie to the public all the time, but even Al Capone couldn’t lie to the IRS.”
*Editors note: A previous version of this story identified Jeff Thomas as living in Richmond. Thomas is a Richmond native now living in D.C.