While the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce (GFCC) is registered as a nonprofit corporation in New York state, public records indicate that the organization’s tax-exempt status was revoked by the IRS in 2019, after failing to file Form 990 for three consecutive years.
GFCC Executive Director John Choe told QNS that an “accounting issue” is to blame for the group’s tax-exempt status being revoked, though public records indicate that the GFCC has failed to file the vital reporting form since 2016.
According to the IRS, Form 990 is the reporting form that many federally tax-exempt organizations must file with the IRS each year. This form allows the IRS and the general public to evaluate a nonprofit’s operations; it includes information on the nonprofit’s mission, programs and finances.
GFCC filed the forms in 2014 and 2015, but had failed to file from 2016-2018, while still receiving a Neighborhood 360 Grant from NYC Small Business Services.
This had raised a question about if current recognition by the IRS of tax-exempt status of a nonprofit corporation is necessary for an organization to conduct business in New York.
Choe has addressed accusations regarding the legality of the organization’s nonprofit status, which he says is in full compliance with the New York state nonprofit law.
When asked about the organization’s IRS revocation, Choe claims that it was “obviously incorrect” and that it “must’ve been an accounting issue.”
“I spoke with our previous accountant, and apparently, there was an accounting error. He is trying to resolve this with the IRS regarding submission of our 990 forms,” Choe said.
Since its launch in 2014, the GFCC has established a community night market, introduced a free English language program for the business community, offered marketing resources and created lending circles to help entrepreneurs build credit.
In order to provide those services to the community, the chamber receives funding through annual membership fees, sponsorships of events, and funding from the NYC Small Business Services (SBS), according to Choe.
According to the Lawyers Alliance of New York, a tax-exempt status is not necessary for a New York nonprofit corporation to conduct business in New York. Whether or not any grant-making entity might require such status as a condition to making a grant is entirely at the discretion of the entity making the grant.
The NYS Small Business Services verified that GFCC was a recipient of the N360 Grant for Fiscal Year 2019. Their contract ran through Fiscal Year 2020.
For a neighborhood to be eligible for Neighborhood 360 grant funding, it must meet one of the following criteria:
A Business Improvement District or a Special Assessment District; a Commercial Revitalization Area; an area undergoing a rezoning that will result in a change in allowable commercial or industrial space; or an area where a Commercial District Needs Assessment or a comparable comprehensive neighborhood study or plan has been completed and reviewed by DSBS.
In 2017, downtown Flushing was selected as one of SBS’s targeted geographies. All nonprofit organizations servicing the downtown Flushing community were eligible to apply, the department confirmed.
“Neighborhood 360 Grant recipients are selected via a competitive grant application process facilitated by NYC SBS,” the department said in a statement to QNS. “Grant applicants are required to submit a written proposal that includes a project description, demonstration of need, as well a demonstration of capacity.”
In addition to these written statements, groups are required to provide a staffing plan and budget proposal. Upon the release of conditional offer letters, grantees are then required to submit supplemental documentation in addition to a robust list of procurement documents.
Though former chamber members declined to comment on Choe’s leadership and the organization, Michael Wang, who first volunteered to build the group’s bookkeeping system and served as treasurer before transitioning to the role of member services, said there was nothing that didn’t seem right at first.
“Our budget wasn’t big at that time and everything seemed to be accounted for properly,” he told QNS.
However, Wang said he believed the chamber wasn’t effective in achieving its mission statement, which is to help members and the business community in Flushing in general.
“A lot of the activities we were doing leaned more toward the environment and transportation, and things that don’t either directly help local businesses or just don’t really help them at all,” Wang said.
As head of member services, Wang aimed to add value to the organization by creating committees and events.
Wang said he doesn’t know whether Choe is using the chamber for his own personal agenda.
Chuck Apelian, the vice chair and chair of the Land Use Committee on Community Board 7, had raised concerns about Choe’s motives after claiming that Choe is using the chamber as a platform to represent his own views and opinions. Furthermore, Apelian claimed that he heard from other people that the books at the chamber have been “sketchy.”
“The makeup of this organization just doesn’t represent anything anymore. The business community doesn’t feel he supports them,” Apelian said. “He’s going against the Flushing Waterfront Development and instead of supporting the economic development that’s going to create permanent jobs and good growth of the city, he’s using it for his own ulterior motives and political aspirations.”
Longtime CB 7 member Joe Sweeney, echoed Apelian’s sentiments about Choe’s character.
“Personally, I’ve spent many nights at meetings because I love Queens and have lived here all my life, and I think John Choe’s ultimate goal is to destroy our community board,” Sweeney said. “He’s confrontational with the board members and makes false accusations. He’s just someone that is combative and has given us a bad rap.”
Meanwhile, Choe defended his leadership against those accusations, saying that neither he nor the chamber have done any wrongdoing outside the rules and regulations of New York state’s chartered nonprofit corporations.
“There’s nothing that I have done as executive director of the chamber to benefit myself,” Choe said. “I have not taken money from developers. I haven’t personally been compensated by special interest groups in the community.”
In September 2018, Arlene Fleishman, a current CB 7 member and president of the Mitchell-Linden Civic Association, had sought legal action against Choe to remove him from their Facebook account or remove the name of the organization.
According to Fleishman, the Mitchell-Linden Civic Association’s Facebook account was established years ago when Choe was co-president of the organization.
Choe, Fleishman and another member, Emily Sheahan, were listed as administrators of the page, according to Fleishman.
However, one day, Fleishman was notified that Choe had removed them as admins, taking full control of the Mitchell-Linden Civic Association account.
“He had no right to do what he did. He’s a very dishonest person and I don’t think he has any integrity. He may be on the community board, but I have nothing to do with him,” Fleishman said. “He doesn’t act in the best interests of the people, and who is he to take me as the president off as an administrator on our Facebook page.”
According to Fleishman, a Facebook representative had informed them that Choe had complete control and, other than legal action, they had no recourse.
In response to the incident, Choe said he “can’t remember exactly what happened with the page,” and that he would have to retract it.
A similar incident occurred with the creation of an authorized Community Board 7 Facebook page, according to Board Chair Eugene Kelty.
According to Kelty, the Facebook page displayed information tied to events organized by the Flushing Chamber of Commerce. It was then removed after the board requested the NYC Department of Investigation to intervene with Facebook.
The board had suspected Choe created the page, and when asked, Choe was non-committal regarding his involvement.
“My job as a chair is to run the meeting. There are people that give opinions, and he [John Choe] seems to take the least direction that the board is going on,” Kelty said. “In 36 years, never once has there been a discredit or bad image given to the board at all. It was always a unified vote and open to the public.”
Choe told QNS he had nothing to do with the CB 7 Facebook page.