SUNSHINE WEEK: IRS forms open up access for private school journalists

WISCONSIN -- A student journalist at a private liberal arts college in Kenosha, Wis., recently found that requesting a copy of a school's IRS Form 990 was a useful way to gather financial information from private colleges or universities that are otherwise exempt from freedom of information laws.

Nathan Giebel, a copy editor for Carthage College's student newspaper, The Current, decided to request the tax return forms, which are required of nonprofit organizations, after a seminar at last year's Associated Collegiate Press/College Media Advisers National College Media Convention. In addition to Carthage College, he requested forms from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Ill., Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., North Central College in Naperville, Ill. and Carroll University in Waukesha, Wis.

From the forms, Giebel wrote an article drawing attention to a tuition increase, college expenses and professor salaries. He also wrote, an editorial on the university president's salary.

He said his experience requesting the forms from his own college was difficult in the beginning, but ultimately he was able to receive the forms and comments from administrators for his investigative article.

"The administration was not fully cooperative at first, even after I pointed out the legislation, and eventually after I got [the managing editor] involved, he was able to work as a bridge between myself and the administration and get them to cooperate and understand what my request really was," Giebel said.

Mike Hiestand, legal consultant for the Student Press Law Center, said when student journalists request the form from a private school, it is often the first time any one has ever done so.

"It's not always a matter of them not being willing to comply with the law, it's a matter of them not knowing the law and knowing what the requirements are. So sometimes a part of obtaining access is successfully educating school officials on what their responsibilities are," Hiestand said.

The process, which should have taken a few minutes, took Giebel more than a month, but he eventually obtained Carthage College's Form 990s from 2005 to 2007. The IRS Form 990 discloses information about the amount of money the organization has made in a year; a listing of where the money was spent, how much and for what; a detailed balance sheet with the assets and liabilities of the organization at the end of each fiscal year; information on the sale and purchase of the organization’s investments and how they have fared; the identities and salaries of the top organization employees making more than $30,000 a year and any legal fees paid by the organization. Under 26 U.S.C. Secs. 6104, 6652 and 6685, tax-exempt organizations, such as private schools, college foundations, charities and non-profit corporations are required to provide the form upon request.

"The valuable thing about the Form 990 is that students attending a private school don't have a lot of options when it comes to obtaining information about their schools and the 990 is [a] ... valuable tool for getting behind doors that are normally closed," said Hiestand.

Giebel requested the form via e-mail from David Missurelli, the business office controller, after running into confusion requesting the forms in person from the business office. Giebel said he received the forms from Luther College and Elmhurst College without any problems or delay. Wheaton College, North Central College and Carroll University did not respond to his requests.

"Although what I found actually wasn't negative -- I'm not sure how they would have reacted if it was -- but they were fully OK with everything I said in my [article and editorial] and they didn't censor them whatsoever," Giebel said.

Giebel said that the outcome of his experience has been a positive one, and that some professors have used the article in lectures to start class discussions on its reported findings.

Carthage College, news, The Current, Wisconsin