Controversial Nonprofit Receives CDC Grant

Grant designed to increase health outcomes could benefit union-supported trade organization

Culinary students at Colors Restaurant in New York / AP
June 7, 2013

A controversial nonprofit organization that critics accuse of acting as a labor front group received a lucrative grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March.

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), a New York-based nonprofit that protests outside of eateries for perceived poor working conditions, is one of 15 organizations splitting a $3 million CDC grant aimed at improving health in the Asian-American community.

ROC’s New Orleans chapter received a $200,000 subgrant from the Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum (APIAHF) to meet with local businesses to discuss healthy menu options for restaurant workers, according to APIAHF vice president of community strategies Edward Tepporn.

Soon after the subgrant was announced in March, ROC NOLA put out a job posting for it Healthy Foods, Healthy Workers project designed to "engage restaurant owners who employ Asian American workers to 1) sign a pledge to provide healthier food for the workers' ‘family meal’ or staff meal, and 2) join RAISE."

RAISE is a trade association of restaurant owners and workers that routinely lobby lawmakers to institute higher pay and benefits for employees and drive up costs for employers.

Mike Paranzino, a spokesman for ROC Exposed, said the grant money could be used to improperly bolster ROC’s lobbying capabilities—a far cry from the CDC grant’s goal of "high impact, population wide strategies related to physical activity, nutrition and weight management."

"The CDC started with an honorable goal to improve health outcomes, but the devil’s in the details," he said. "CDC grants are not supposed to be used for lobbying, but this money could end up getting funneled to a labor association that goes straight to Washington with it."

Tepporn said that APIAHF has advised all of its subgrantees that "subrecipients are prohibited from spending money on lobbying or any political related activities."

"We are very conscious of that--we meet once a month to make sure the money is spent properly," he said. "It may be possible that the position is not fully funded by the federal money...but we don’t know."

Neither the ROC, nor the CDC responded to requests for comment.

UNITE HERE, a union representing hotel and restaurant workers, founded ROC in the aftermath of 9/11. While originally designed to help workers coping with the destruction of the Twin Towers’ Windows on the World restaurant, the group soon began picketing outside of eateries across the city demanding higher pay and lobbying for legislation to impose regulations on business owners.

"ROC portrays itself as a friend to the working man, but they’re pushing a big government, union agenda," Paranzino said. "They push for mandates that make it harder for restaurants to stay open, harder for workers to find work and impose higher costs on customers."

ROC has received "more than $2 million in grants" from state and federal agencies, Paranzino said.

Federal largesse is not the only way that has allowed ROC to spend more than $2 million on its activities each year. ROC is registered as a 501(c)(3) charity, which allows its donors to deduct contributions from their taxes. At the same time, ROC has spearheaded efforts to increase the minimum wage on Capitol Hill and pass paid leave laws in New York City and Philadelphia.

ROC Exposed submitted a letter to the IRS challenging ROC’s nonprofit status because of the group’s admitted lobbying efforts.

"We can all go to Congress and talk to lawmakers, but ROC is specifically set up as a charity," Paranzino said. "They lobby for specific legislation and go to Congress seeking cosponsors of bills—the definition of lobbying—and they don’t disclose it."

Britton Loftin, ROC’s national policy coordinator, dismissed the notion that ROC operated outside of its mission of educating the public about restaurant worker conditions in a February interview with the Washington Free Beacon.

"We’re not a union, we’re a worker center, a nonprofit," he said. "Our campaign’s built [to ensure] workplace justice, to make sure places are accountable."

Loftin, who has previously worked for Sen. Mary Landrieu’s (D., LA) campaign, came to ROC after working his way through college at Red Lobster among other restaurants. He admitted that ROC interacts with lawmakers, but only to figure out how to build popular support for its agenda.

"We went to the Hill, worked with members of Congress and they told us we need a groundswell of support to raise the minimum wage," he said. 

ROC is more interested in "engaging the consumer" through educational programs to win popular support than winning the votes of lawmakers, according to Britton.

ROC’s answered "No" on its three most recent IRS filings when asked if "the organization [engaged] in lobbying activities." However, the group did disclose that it spent nearly $250,000 conducting "educational briefings on research for policymakers" in 2010 and 2011.

Britton did not respond to an email seeking clarification on what that term meant.

IRS spokesman Anthony Burke said 501(c)(3)s are permitted to engage in issue-based advocacy under the tax code, though they are not allowed to campaign for specific candidates. He could not comment on the status of ROC Exposed’s complaint.

"If there’s an exempt organization and someone files a complaint … we can’t as an agency comment on a specific case because federal tax law prohibits us from doing so," he said. "We can neither confirm nor deny."