Behind the Scenes: Power Shift in Women’s March Iowa Leadership
By: Holly Herbert
On October 9, a press release came out from Women’s March Iowa (a.k.a. WMIA) announcing that a new board and president of the organization had been elected. It quickly became apparent that not all of the (former) board member were aware that the vote had taken place and that they, as well as the former WMIA President, Sandy Mostaert, had been ousted from the organization.
Instead of addressing the matter directly in the Women’s March Iowa Facebook discussion group, which has the widest access to WMIA volunteers with a membership number close to 10,500, Mostaert made a series of Facebook posts and comments from October 2, 2017 to October 11, 2017 addressing the situation on her business page for Women’s March Iowa, most of which have since been deleted. These posts insisted that there were rumors being circulated that WMIA was not a 501(c)4 organization. The original post on 10/2 stated:
“YES, we are approved to operate as a 501c4 nonprofit status and in the process of IRS to get all the paperwork finalize through incorporation bureaucracy that takes place. Typical IRS paperwork can take 6 to 24 months to get finalized-so while waiting they give you the approval to operate.”
This post was followed with a screenshot of an IRS letter dated May 30, 2017, that acknowledges receipt of an IRS form 8976, Notice of Intent to Operate Under 501(c)(4) that was filed May 22, 2017. The tax identification number for the organization is blacked out in the cropped image that appeared on the page, as well as a portion of the following statement: This acknowledgement is not a determination by the IRS that you qualify as tax-exempt under Internal Revenue Code (Code) Section 501(a) as an organization described in Code Section 501(c)(4).
Additionally, the IRS would have notified Mostaert when she filed for the tax identification number for her organization that assignment of the tax identification number did not grant tax-exempt status to nonprofit organizations. The letter would have also indicated that if there were any mistakes in the name of the organization that the tax identification number was filed for that the filer should immediately contact the IRS with a name correction. All of the IRS paperwork supplied by Mostaert was listed as “Womens March Iowa.” Clearly, there was a typo in the name of the organization, which should have been listed as “Women’s March Iowa”. This is an important detail that would further complicate matters for Mostaert when it came to filing articles of incorporation with the Iowa Secretary of State’s office.
In response to Mostaert’s October 2 Facebook post on the WMIA business page, a few women expressing concern posted a series of comments regarding articles of incorporation not being on file with the Iowa Secretary of State. Mostaert then claimed that the IRS letter she had posted, the acknowledgment of Letter of Intent to file as a nonprofit 501(c)4 was “approval to operate”, although no such language appears in the letter. Additionally, instead of admitting that she had yet to file articles of incorporation with the Secretary of State, Mostaert deemed questions from one of the posters as “irrelevant” and told the concerned individual that their posts would be deleted because they “could cause issues of confusion and misinterpretation.” By the following morning, Mostaert had deleted the comments expressing concern about the filing with the Secretary of State.
One of the concerned women who questioned Mostaert’s filing of articles of incorporation also made me aware of an IRS tool called Exempt Organization Select Check in which one can enter either the name of an organization or their tax identification number to establish if an organization is eligible to receive tax-deductible charitable contributions. Entering the tax identification number (EIN) for Womens March Iowa did not provide any results, nor did entering the organizational name and the city and state in which Mostaert filed to register her organization. As of October 25, 2017, searching for tax-exempt organizations in Ely, IA yielded only 6 results, none of which were Womens March Iowa. This detail is noteworthy in part due to Mostaert referring to the organization as a 501c nonprofit on fundraising letters for a July 29 “Our Lives On The Line” event.
On October 9, Mostaert posted in a Facebook organizing group for “Our Lives On The Line,” which was a series of rallies regarding saving the ACA, that Robin Covington had removed her has admin from the Iowa Women’s March discussion group and that the post about her no longer being president and that Robin was taking that role and a new board was formed was not true. Due to Facebook’s new security standards, it would be impossible for Covington to remove Mostaert as an administrator to the WMIA discussion group, as an original administrator of a Facebook group cannot be removed from their role by anyone other than the original admin. This would mean that Mostaert would have had voluntarily removed herself as administrator of the discussion group at some earlier date.
After this post was made, Mostaert was questioned as to why she deleted the earlier posts requesting a record of her filing of articles of incorporation and a record of the date for which they were filed with the Secretary of State. Mostaert incorrectly claimed that these were legal documents that she only shared privately for “security reasons.” In fact, articles of incorporation, whether for a nonprofit or a for-profit organization are a matter of public record. Mostaert at first tried to paint these questions as “trolling” and then directed me to her business page, as she claimed the articles of incorporation were posted there. Upon examination of the business page, the articles of incorporation were not, in fact, posted. Additionally, by the following morning, Mostaert had deleted all of the posts containing questions and answers regarding the articles of incorporation for the organization. At this point, I made it known that the posts had been deleted and that a record of signed and dated articles of incorporation for a nonprofit in the state of Iowa should be made readily available to anyone who requests them.
On October 10, a former board member of WMIA and mother of Sandy Mostaert, Lisa Burnes, insisted in a post in the Women’s March Iowa Facebook group that the newly formed board was not valid, as the board had “not been approved.” However, when questioned further about the original board the poster admitted: “There was a board, one that was developed by Sandy [Mostaert]…” and “The apology was due to a social media concern and that’s why she gave the reins of the social media to Robin [Covington].” The same poster insisted: “To hijack a whole board because of the shift in power just for social media is wrong.” After this, Robin Covington posted a link to a thread from August introducing the board members that Sandy had recruited.
So, when was the “original” Women’s March Iowa board formed, and what “social media concern” and apology did this post reference?
According to many of the board members, I spoke with, they were recruited directly by Mostaert in March and April of 2017, either through direct contact or through a public call to apply to become a board member. Mostaert specifically emphasized a need for diverse voices in her recruiting process (a detail that was mentioned to me by nearly every board member I spoke with). The board had a total of 3 meetings that took place before the September meeting in which Mostaert was voted out.
In these meetings, several board members expressed concern about a lack of bylaws and articles of incorporation for the organization, as well as concern regarding some of Mostaert’s problematic behavior toward others in the organization’s Facebook discussion group. At no point were members of the board given access to financial reports or a record of when the organization’s articles of incorporation were filed with the Secretary of State. Additionally, the bylaws for the state organization were not voted upon until July 6, and this was done through an electronic survey service that would have allowed only Mostaert access to the voting results and was therefore not a public vote.
After Mostaert was questioned multiple times about the status of articles of incorporation by her board members, at least one member of the board was presented with an unsigned and undated copy of a document that appeared to have been intended to file in April of 2017. Later, Mostaert provided a signed and dated copy of the same document, with a signature date of May 22, 2017, on her Facebook business page. One board member additionally told me that Sandy had informed her that the articles of incorporation were filed sometime between January and March.
None of the dates Mostaert supplied to those inquiring are accurate, as the Secretary of State’s website shows that Mostaert filed articles of incorporation on 10/11/2017, approximately 6-7 months after forming the Women’s March Iowa board.
In the state of Iowa, an organization must file its articles of incorporation within 90 calendar days of forming the organization. The Secretary of State also lists “Holding an organizational meeting –after issuance of the certificate of acknowledgment, an organizational meeting is held by the board of directors to: adopt bylaws, elect officers, discuss other business.” Additionally, recognition of nonprofit status in a particular state is used to help determine tax-exempt status to the IRS. Failure to incorporate within the proper time period could result in tax fines and could cause legal complications.
According to documents made available by Mostaert to those asking about her organization’s nonprofit status, although she filed for a tax identification number in May, she did not incorporate with the state of Iowa until October, and the name she used to incorporate, and for her tax identification number, is Womens March Iowa. Her articles of incorporation also do not mention a Board of Directors, even though she recruited board members and established a board in April and was collecting money for the organization after the January 21 march.
Additionally, Mostaert was asked not to incorrectly characterize donations as tax-exempt by at least one other board member multiple times. However, Mostaert referred to donations to both Iowans for the Promotion of Civic Education and Iowa Womens March as tax-deductible to many sponsors both in person and over social media. Additionally, By Mostaert’s own online admission, she utilized this tax identification number to collect funds for Womens March Iowa without approval or authority of the individuals who established Iowans for the Promotion of Civic Education through the end of May 2017. One former board member stated that Mostaert had given out the tax identification number to at least one other organization to utilize as their own. This organization was Change.org, one of the organizations that helped organize the Women’s March both in Washington, D.C. and in Iowa.
In addition to making questionable/erroneous decisions regarding proper use of tax identification numbers, tax status of donations made by contributors to the organization(s) Mostaert was representing and improper filing deadlines in regard to articles of incorporation with the Iowa Secretary of State, Mostaert engaged in abusive and questionable behavior toward her fellow organizers and board members. Many former organizers and some board members referred to her behavior as “toxic”, “vile”, “abusive”, and “problematic.”
During the planning sessions leading up to the January march on the capitol, Mostaert frequently dominated conversations and was resistant to letting others try to steer the conversation. At one point, one of the Des Moines organizers who had started the first Facebook event page for Des Moines march became so upset with Mostaert’s controlling behavior that she canceled the Facebook event, causing confusion and panic to many of the individuals who planned to attend the march.
Additionally, when Mostaert asked the original main lead organizers of the group if they’d like to continue on with the organization as board members, not a single one took her up on her invitation. Shortly after, Mostaert wrote to a local women’s group that Women’s March Iowa did not support the award they were giving to Megan Flynn-Bickel for her organizing efforts to help women get to the march on D.C. When confronted, Mostaert proclaimed to the other core organizers with: “I am WMIA. It is being incorporated under me.”
Later, after the core organizers had disassociated themselves from Mostaert, she formed a board that included Robin Covington, Yana Reid, Nadia Ali, Susan Mrzena, Morgan Schutterle, Kim Weaver, and Lisa Burnes. This board was announced on social media on June 30, 2017, and all of the members were listed as “co-founders” of the Iowa organization. Lisa Burnes, Mostaert’s mother, was named the treasurer of the organization.
Around the time that the board members were announced in the WMIA Facebook discussion group, Mostaert tried to convince board members to post a video of the rape of what appeared to be an underage woman to the Women’s March Iowa Facebook discussion group. One of those board members was Robin Covington, who chose to block Mostaert, as Mostaert had sent the video to her via Facebook private messageIn an April 30th post in the WMIA discussion group, Mostaert had also asked members of the group not to use words like “cisgender” and “white privilege” and accused others of “trolling” when it was pointed out that asking individuals to not use those words was tone policing and made transgender and people of color in the group feel unwelcome and unsupported by WMIA. Mostaert also did not correct one board member who referred to another as a “bitch” in a group board communication.
In addition to permitting and partaking in abusive behavior toward volunteers and board members, Mostaert also broke into the email account of one board member on 4 separate occasions and attempted to intercept a meeting invitation from a member of a partnering organization. Charges were filed with the police regarding this activity by the board member whose WMIA email account was hacked into and then canceled by Mostaert.
Board members were also informed after several inquiries to look into the financials of the organization, that Mostaert was in debt for various events to the sum of $4,000-$5,000. None of this debt was created by expenditures that board members had been consulted on or asked for approval to take on, but by spending agreements Mostaert took on individually as a representative of the organization. Former core organizers stated that Mostaert had exhibited the same type of behavior regarding spending or committing money on behalf of the organization without consulting the other members while they were planning the January 21st march together.
Eventually, board members of the Iowa organization decided to reach out to the national Women’s March organization to share their concerns and ask for guidance. Those reporting concerns were assured that what they shared with the national organization would be kept private later found out that Mostaert was seemingly provided with all of the evidence her board members supplied when reporting her behavior, including a series of Facebook screenshots.
After being presented with a fair amount of evidence as to why board members found Mostaert’s continued leadership of the Iowa organization troublesome, instead of asking Mostaert to resign her position as president of the board, the national organization asked the Iowa group to partake in a restorative justice effort. This was an effort in which Mostaert chose not to participate.
After it became apparent to Covington and other board members that Mostaert was not going to comply with the suggestions of the national organization and she was going to continue displays of problematic behavior and language that would further damage the organization, Covington and other board members called a special meeting that Mostaert and all other board members were requested to attend. When Mostaert did not provide notice of inability to attend and was absent at the special meeting, the board acted on powers granted to them under the bylaws of the organization and elected to remove her from power and elect a new board and president of Women’s March Iowa.
The board members present that the special meeting who remain members of the current WMIA board are: Robin Covington, newly elected president of the organization; Kim Weaver, newly elected vice president of the organization; Yana Reid, Morgan Schutterle, and Nadia Ali. Removed from the board at the special meeting were Sandy Mostaert, former president of WMIA; Mostaert’s mother and treasurer of the organization, Lisa Burnes, and Susan Mrzena.
Depending on whom you talk with, the leadership problems within Women’s March Iowa began at different times. Some say it was in the months leading up to the march at the Iowa State Capitol on January 21st, some may say it began with problematic messaging on Facebook in April. Regardless of when a particular organizer or board member thought the trouble began, there was one common factor: Sandy Mostaert.
As of Wednesday, October 25, 2017, there are 4 different filings with the Iowa Secretary of State related to a Women’s March Iowa organization.
In chronological order of filing date the first, they are:
1. A name reservation for Women’s March, Inc. as a for-profit business. This name reservation was made on March 3rd, 1017 expired July 8 and the organization was never incorporated.
2. A name reservation for a nonprofit group titled Women’s March Iowa, reserved on October 9, 2017, by a Kevin Li.
3. An active legal filing dated October 11, 2017, registering Womens March Iowa, under the name of Sandy Mostaert with no board members mentioned. The title Womens March Iowa is seemingly grammatically incorrect and matches the IRS assignment of the name and the letter of acknowledgment of Mostaert’s intent to file is a nonprofit, received by the IRS in May.
4. An active legal filing for a nonprofit organization called Women’s March Iowa Fund, which is listed under the name of Robin Covington. Additionally, Kevin Li reached out to Covington since she filed the articles of incorporation for.
Women’s March Iowa Fund and signed over the name reservation for Women’s March Iowa to Covington.
Due to the issues with grammatically incorrect filings with the IRS and a failure to correct them, and the fact that Kevin Li signed over the name reservation to Robin Covington, Covington and the rest of the board working with her should be able to lay legal claim to the branding of Women’s March Iowa and Women’s March Iowa Fund.
However, it remains to be seen if the national organization will support the actions of the current board members to remove Sandy Mostaert and other problematic board members or if they will instead choose to support Mostaert in spite of her questionable and potentially illegal behavior.
Any additional comments or corrections can be sent to Holly Herbert, staff writer and editorial board member of Progressive Voices of Iowa at firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s note: Sandy Mostaert contacted PVI shortly after the publication of this article. Her comment is as follows:
“This piece is fabricated and out of context. I have notified our Women’s March national organization president and my attorney. We are quite aware of the relationship of Holly with Robin and that Robin has joined forces with your group. I suggest you remove this immediately before it gets even worst (sic), because not only will be be (sic) addressing Robin but those also that are part of the character assignation (sic) attempts of me and the brand.”
Ms. Mostaert was offered the opportunity to write a counter piece and/or be interviewed by Ms. Herbert regarding her side. She has declined to do so, as did other members who took issue with the findings in this article. As a matter of fact, they took steps to keep their communication with me and other members of the board as private as possible. Progressive Voices of Iowa has chosen to honor their requests and will not publish their unsolicited and freely given comment at this time.
She and others were further assured that PVI has no formal or professional relationship with Robin Covington. She does not write for, nor sit on the board of, PVI.