The relationship between charities and philanthropists in the business community is governed by a sort of Newtonian law of equal and opposite benefits.
The charities get money, goods or services. Their donors get self-satisfaction, community goodwill (which might mean more customers coming in the door), and positive character references to display to jurors, regulators or congressional subcommittees, if necessary.
How much of that might apply to a newly formed Los Angeles philanthropy called No More Poverty? The organization, which was incorporated in May, was founded by brothers Michael and Julian Omidi, according to its website, because "to sit on the sidelines" while people around the world go without food and shelter "is not something that the Omidi Brothers can stand idly by and accept."
Since being established, the organization has issued a fair number of news releases about its support of small charities. The idea, it says, is to encourage others to make their own donations to those organizations. No More Poverty lists some of its recipients on its own website too.
The website says the Omidi brothers have applied to the Internal Revenue Service for 501(c)3 status for their organization, which would make contributions to No More Poverty tax-deductible.
In principle, this is a laudable effort. Who can be against fighting poverty? Makes you want to know a little more about the Omidis, doesn't it? That way, you can judge for yourself whether they should be permitted to raise money by using a tax deduction as a come-on.
The Omidis are the people behind the 1-800-GET-THIN advertising campaign for weight loss surgery that until recently was slathered over California freeways and the radio and TV airwaves. The ads, featuring the slogan "let your new life begin," aimed to promote operations using the Lap-Band, a device surgically implanted around the stomach to suppress appetite. The ads disappeared after the Food and Drug Administration ruled in December that they violated prohibitions against "false or misleading" advertising by underplaying the procedure's risks to patients.
The Times has reported that at least five patients have died following Lap-Band procedures at clinics affiliated with 1-800-GET-THIN, according to lawsuits, coroners' autopsy reports and other public records. One of those deaths is under investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department's Robbery-Homicide unit. Julian and Michael Omidi have been identified in court documents and other public records as owners of the clinics where the surgeries were performed. State insurance regulators are also investigating alleged insurance fraud connected with the centers.
Julian Omidi's medical license has been revoked by the California Medical Board, which cited in its revocation decision his "penchant for dishonesty." The board placed Michael, a doctor, on three years' probation after he stipulated to a finding that he performed surgeries at an unaccredited center. The probation was completed in October.
Lawyers for 1-800-GET-THIN and the Omidis said in January that the business had never engaged in insurance fraud and that no wrongdoing at the surgery centers had ever been found. In the course of The Times' reporting on 1-800-GET-THIN, the Omidis and their affiliated companies and their associates filed seven lawsuits against The Times, its journalists, and commenters on its website. All the cases have been dismissed.
Whether the Omidis' No More Poverty gets its tax-deductible certification is up to the IRS, of course. But let's just say that, given this record, one hopes that the IRS examines the application very carefully.
The record also warrants taking a close look at the altruistic efforts the Omidis have undertaken thus far. Their website states that they seek to work "to solve the issue of poverty in countries from Algeria to Zimbabwe." Last week, the website was listing three charities they "support," and a spokeswoman, Hallie Stafford, gave me the name of two more. One of those listed, Youth Speak Collective of Pacoima, which provides educational resources for low-income at-risk youths, told me late last week they haven't received any money from No More Poverty. I called all the named recipients, and judging from what they told me, No More Poverty's total outlay to them has been $4,000.
As was first reported by KPCC radio, another charity, Mountain View-based ReSurge International, which provides free reconstructive surgery to patients in the Third World, returned a $2,000 donation from Michael Omidi after learning about his background and discovering that it had been named on the website without its permission. "Our research turned up the problems surrounding his past," ReSurge CEO Susan W. Hayes told me. Shortly after she objected to being listed on No More Poverty's website, ReSurge's name came down, she says.