Tampa Bay nonprofits weigh going after BP money

Published April 22, 2013

As local governments and businesses across the Tampa Bay region file BP oil spill claims, another potential victim has emerged: nonprofit organizations.

In recent months, lawyers and accountants have been approaching the groups, urging them to try to recoup donations, state funding and other revenue lost when Florida tourism tanked after the 2010 spill.

The spill scared tourists away from the state and caused people to lose jobs, "which affects the state revenue dollars available to the not-for-profits," said Ellen Fontana, a Clearwater certified public accountant who handles audits and bookkeeping for nonprofits. "So even though they may not be a hotel on the beach, they were indirectly impacted."

Nonprofits, which are treated like businesses under the BP class-action lawsuit, don't have to prove that their losses are directly attributable to the spill — just that there were revenue fluctuations between 2007 and 2011. They have until April 22, 2014, to file claims.

However, most Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough county nonprofits contacted by the Tampa Bay Times said they aren't pursuing claims because they don't have the equipment or financial means to track such data, or because they feel it is unethical to embark on what might look like a money grab. Others said they didn't notice a loss either anecdotally or after investigating.

"The problem is the spill occurred at the same time as the meltdown of the economy, so it's tough to correlate the spill with the other problems they have," said Craig Gilman, a certified public accountant with Lewis, Birch and Ricardo LLC, which has helped at least 20 nonprofit clients explore the claims process. "But I have no doubt that the spill is a contributor to some of the problems they're having as far as the reduction in contributions."

It's unclear how many area nonprofits have filed and how much their potential losses are, as the lawyers and accountants handling claims typically refuse to divulge the information because of attorney-client privilege or out of fear that identifying them might harm their cases.

Tampa Bay area groups that have pursued claims include Community Action Stops Abuse (CASA), Family Resources Inc. and Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas, which president Barbara Inman said lost out on an estimated $50,000 or more in donations.

Religious Community Services, which operates a food bank in Clearwater and shelters for families and victims of domestic violence, said its board is investigating whether to file.

In addition to dips in donations and grants, CASA executive director Linda Osmundson said the 30-bed domestic violence shelter's number of clients spiked around April 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and spewed an estimated 172 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. CASA had to turn away 1,000 people — some of them from the Panhandle — in 2011, and 700 last year, she said.

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But BP settlement rules require a multiphase process in which individuals, businesses and nonprofits must first meet complicated financial, geographical and other criteria to qualify for the class-action. The accounting firm that reviewed CASA's case said that it believed a claim would be too difficult to prove.

Whether CASA's problems are the fault of the spill or the recession, Osmundson said, the group is working to replace the grants it has lost and to raise $10 million for a new 50,000-square-foot, 100-bed shelter to handle increased demand.

According to Osmundson, unemployment tends to lead to increases in domestic violence and child abuse because of rises in household tensions.

"The need goes up at the same time as the dollars to serve the vulnerable are declining," she said.

United Way Suncoast, which tends to partner on fundraising campaigns with large employers like Raymond James financial services and Publix supermarkets, was among groups that didn't even try to file a claim.

"We have no way of really testing whether BP's oil spill affected the ups and downs of our contributions," said Douglas Arnold, vice president of communications. "The reality is there are many, many other factors that are currently creating the economic conditions in the Tampa Bay region."

Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or