If we had five dollars for every time someone asked us to get hold of someone’s bank accounts (pretty much always against the law and therefore off-limits), we would have enough money to buy a lovely lunch for two.

Sometimes, people who call us perk up when we inform them that non-profit organizations in the United States are usually required to file an income tax form that becomes part of the public record.

The Internal Revenue Service is much in the news these days, and while its treatment of applicants for tax-exempt status has received lots of attention elsewhere, talk of non-profits always reminds us of the gold mine available to fact gatherers when a non-profit – once finally granted that status – gets to the point of filing its return.

The return is put on IRS Form 990, the idea being that if the public is foregoing the benefits of normal income tax payable by ordinary corporations, it has the right to look at the activities of companies that get a tax break. Religious organizations and very small non-profits are exempt, but most of the “501(c)” companies (named after the section of the tax code that governs them) do have to file.

The 990’s are often available on a company’s website, or else from guidestar.org or your state’s organization that governs charitable organizations.

A couple of caveats: not every piece of information about a non-profit is public, which is why part of the emerging scandal today involves leaks from within the IRS to news organizations about the activities of some charitable organizations generally opposed to some of the current U.S. government’s policies. Certain information is redacted from the 990 forms. If it were not, there would be no need to leak them to anyone.

The other warning is the same that we provide to clients about any other public information: it’s often just a starting point that requires a human brain to make sense of it.

We were once asked to investigate a non-profit, which turned out to share its premises with a boutique investment bank. The relationship between the two was unclear. From the 990 forms, we were able to see how much the non-profit paid each year in rent. We then visited the office (no litigation was pending so there was no worry about the no-contact rule that governs attorneys). 

We were able to estimate what square footage the charity occupied within the office, owned by a commercial developer, and what the going rent for such an office would be. We then concluded that the bank was subsidizing the non-profit handsomely, but that subsidy appeared nowhere on the 990 form.

Probing further, we saw that the African country the non—profit operated in was the same one in which the bank was pitching to do a huge deal. Plausible hypothesis: the bank was paying the non-profit for influence in that African country.

And all of this from a single line on a public tax form.