I'm afraid being a non-profit lawyer ruined my enjoyment of a recent episode of the NBC series "Medium," a weekly drama featuring a woman whose dreams help solve crimes. It was a clever plot, but the TV writers bollixed it up because they didn't understand how charitable assets are handled.
A married woman is having an affair with a dentist who is also chairman of a local foundation that provides charity dental care to poor children. The cheating woman has a $7 million insurance policy on her life, the primary beneficiary of which is her husband. The secondary beneficiary on the policy is the local dental foundation.
With the help of her lover-boy dentist, the woman fakes her own death by fire in such a way as to implicate her husband. Sure enough, the investigation focuses on the husband as the killer.
Through a series of plot twists involving the medium's interpretation of her dreams, the investigating attorney shifts his attention from the husband to the dentist. The attorney realized that if the apparently deceased woman's husband were her killer, the husband would forfeit the $7 million in favor of the secondary beneficiary, the local foundation.
In a dramatic scene the attorney confronts the dentist in his office with the following accusatory question: "Are you aware, doctor, that as chairman of the foundation you would have sole discretion as to how that
money is spent?"
With this revelation, the viewer immediately figures out that the dentist and his not-really-dead girlfriend had intended to run off together to make a new life with each other using the $7 million to stake a lavish lifestyle on the lam.
At that point, the whole story fell apart for me. If you didn't know anything about charity law I suppose you'd think the dentist had concocted the perfect crime.
But even a layman would wonder how the dentist could think he could just disappear with $7 million after such a highly publicized murder linked to his charity. Surely there would be a lot of news about how the local dental charity had benefited from this tragedy. The dentist's and the woman's disappearance with the money would not go unnoticed.
Regardless, the larger issue is not that the dentist's getaway plan was flawed. TV writers expect us to suspend some disbelief for the sake of entertainment. It is, rather, that the plausibility of the entire story depends on the audience's casual acceptance of the idea that the leaders of charitable organizations can treat their treasuries like personal income.
Perhaps this is not such a surprise in light of the many stories about the so-called prosperity preachers who live like kings on the donations to their ministries. But this story is about a publicly supported charity (not a church) headed by a chairman who is responsible to a board of directors drawn from the local community. The public would have to believe in a vast conspiracy of all the board members, perhaps with payoffs to themselves, to let the dentist get away with the remaining funds. That's pretty cynical.
More likely, unfortunately, the public is completely clueless about the protections built into the charitable sector. The legal rules against private benefit and private inurement may be foreign to the viewing public, but one would hope they would have some sense that the use of charitable funds is restricted to charitable purposes.
On the other hand, the public is very aware of the presence and powers of the IRS. But might the public also believe the IRS has nothing to do with the regulation of charities? Judging from this story, such seems to be the case.
Maybe the TV writers have done us non-profit lawyers a favor. They're the ones who concocted this plot, and if they know anything they know their audience. If the audience can believe this story, we have work to do.