The Zionist Organization of America has fired an internal critic who aired concerns about the way the group has handled the recent revocation of its tax-exempt status and who referred to herself as a whistleblower in internal memos.
Orit Arfa, the Los Angeles-based executive director of the ZOA’s Western Region, confirmed to the Forward that she had been informed of her dismissal on November 19.
The group’s national vice president, Steve Goldberg, who has been strongly critical of ZOA management, accused the organization of retaliating against Arfa. “It’s absolutely retaliatory,” he said. Goldberg had spoken with Arfa and said she planned to sue.
A ZOA spokesman denied that Arfa’s firing was retaliatory. The group has simply chosen to move its West Coast headquarters to San Francisco from Los Angeles, he said, in order to cut costs.
The firing comes amid signs of increasing disarray within the ZOA, a hawkish pro-Israel group with chapters across the country. In another development, the ZOA’s Orange County branch voted to disband following the resignation of both its president and vice president. And Goldberg said that the organization has received just $700,000 in contributions in 2012.
“You have true chaos here now,” Goldberg said.
The ZOA lost its tax exemption this past February after failing to file tax reports to the IRS for three consecutive years. Upon receiving notice of the IRS sanction, the group informed major donors that it was no longer tax exempt and channeled contributions to an outside holding account pending restoration of its exempt status. But it made no public statement, arguably leaving lesser donors unaware of their contributions’ on-hold status. Even some leaders within the ZOA’s regional apparatus didn’t know the group’s exemption had been revoked until the Forward reported on it in September.
Arfa raised concerns within the ZOA as early as September that the organization had not been doing enough to inform donors about the loss of its tax exemption. In a September memo to ZOA leadership, Arfa alleged that Klein had asked her to “remain secretive” about the ZOA’s change in status, a charge the ZOA denied. Arfa also wrote in that memo that Klein had implied that she could be fired if she does “something that does not please him or is perceived as being disloyal to him.”
Arfa sent a second memo to ZOA leadership in October in which she accused Klein of continuing to urge her to downplay the ZOA’s loss of tax-exempt status, another charge that the ZOA denied.
“I’m afraid my job is in jeopardy,” Arfa wrote at the end of that memo.
Arfa’s termination is effective as of the end of November. In a statement sent to the Forward, the ZOA said it was closing its Los Angeles office and relocating to San Francisco.
“The closure of the Los Angeles office is due to financial considerations and internal management issues related to coordination of personnel and fundraising,” the organization stated. “A major donor, who wishes to remain anonymous at this time, will fully fund the ZOA San Francisco office. Moving the ZOA office to San Francisco will save the organization over $100,000 per year.”
The ZOA’s national executive director, David Drimer, said in a subsequent interview with the Forward that the possibility of future litigation limited what the organization could say about Arfa’s termination. “I consider this a private matter regarding a lawful and not retaliatory termination of an employee,” Drimer said. “We are opening an office in San Francisco which will result in significant out-of-pocket savings for the ZOA, and we believe that any performance-related issues should be kept private.”
Goldberg, who works as an attorney, disputed the ZOA’s assertions. “She’s being personally singled out because she expressed in written memoranda and in phone calls with [ZOA National President] Mort Klein her discomfort with not voluntarily disclosing to potential donors that the ZOA had lost its 501(c)(3) status,” Goldberg said, using a legal term for a charity’s tax exemption. “By complaining about it and blowing the whistle and putting into writing and expressing her discomfort, the timing is such that that is why it was done.”
Reached via telephone, Arfa, who was working in her official capacity as recently as the day before her firing, would confirm only that she had been terminated.
Arfa’s firing came a day after the president of the ZOA’s Orange County chapter announced that his local board had chosen to voluntarily disband. Chapter President Jesse Rosenblum notified Klein and other members of the ZOA leadership in a November 18 email obtained by the Forward.
In October, Rosenblum told the Forward that he had not been informed that the ZOA had lost its tax exemption until it was reported in the Forward, and that one member of the board of the Orange County chapter had resigned over the issue.
Rosenblum declined to speak to the Forward for this story. He did not cite a reason for disbanding the chapter in his email to ZOA leadership, but wrote that he had decided to resign as chapter president following a phone call with Klein. Following his resignation the vice president resigned, and the entire board subsequently disbanded. Drimer said that he had been traveling and was unaware of the chapter’s disbanding.
The state of the organization’s fundraising efforts has also been a subject of criticism. The ZOA cannot access money in the outside account to which it has been channeling contributions until the IRS reinstates its tax-exempt status. Goldberg told the Forward that Drimer had told him that the ZOA has raised $700,000 so far in 2012. Another $1.2 million has been pledged to the organization. Asked about the claim, Drimer told the Forward, “That may be true.”
The group received $2.5 million in contributions and grants in 2011. Drimer noted that the organization will send out another mailing before the end of the year. He said that he doesn’t think fundraising has been particularly slow.
“I don’t think we’re having an especially weak year,” Drimer said.
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This story "ZOA 'Whistleblower' Fired Amid Disarray" was written by Josh Nathan-Kazis.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.