Benzaiten Center, Lake Worth Arts Project, Played Tax Status Puffery with Public [UPDATED]

Categories: Fire Ant

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Misrepresenting your tax exempt status when dealing with the public and public officials? Not cool. Having the IRS make whole your puffery after the fact? Priceless. Just ask the folks at the Living Arts Foundation -- the Florida non-profit that is sponsoring the Benzaiten Center for the Arts, a $1.75 million project that inked a contract earlier this week with the City of Lake Worth.

The Benzaiten sounds terrific: Take an abandoned beer warehouse by the FEC railroad tracks on the city's struggling west side and turn it into 22,000 square feet of exhibition and work space for sculptors, ceramicists and glassblowers. Living Arts Foundation founder JoAnne Berkow described it to Lake Worth city officials as "one of Florida's most innovative arts development, economic development, and community development projects."

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Still, Lake Worth has a history of great-sounding plans going awry and, all respect to city officials and the Palm Beach Post, we wondered how deeply they'd dug into the proposal. We decided to have a look-see.

Call us cynical, but when we noticed Elizabeth Fago's name on the board of directors of the Living Arts Foundation our crap detector lit up. Fago's wheeling and dealing among local power brokers is legendary. But Betsy isn't the story, it turns out.

The other thing that caught our eye, and that turned weird, was LAF's tax status. (We also noticed, for what it's worth, that Berkow's husband, Steven Tendrich, is a big time real estate developer.) The Benzaiten website describes LAF as a 501(c)(3), which means contributors can write donations off their federal income tax. Very important for fundraising.

LAF said the same thing about its tax status to West Palm Beach officials when they pitched the Benzaiten Center idea there in 2012. They also had discussions with the City of Boynton Beach in 2011. (Berkow and company sure are persistent.)

Tax-exempt status is easily verified. The IRS website hosts a database listing all such entities; the website Guidestar does too. Neither LAF nor Benzaiten were anywhere to be found on either.

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