Usually, there's not much excitement, scandal, or intrigue at your local Chamber of Commerce. Usually, these organizations hold buttoned-up networking meetings where businesspeople shake hands, pass out cards, and harmlessly hobnob. But this is Broward, people!
A group called the Broward County Chamber of Commerce is drawing attention because numerous social-media pages related to it and its leader, Lawrence Zolnowski, are rife with politically charged, anti-Muslim comments. Other business leaders are distancing themselves from the group.
New Times has found that for about a decade, Zolnowski, who has drawn a salary from his position as chamber president, has attempted to form similar chambers around the state. Also, despite being registered as a nonprofit organization (required by Florida law for any chamber of commerce), the IRS in May stripped Zolnowski's of its nonprofit status.
On Monday, on several of the Broward Chamber of Commerce's social-media pages, a “Special President’s Day Message to America” was posted that consisted solely of a photograph of Barack Obama giving the middle finger.
The day before, a photo of a newspaper clip that described a Somali terror attack had been published with the caption, “Another Islamic group tries to blow up a plane. Can anyone name another terrorist group that is not part of Islam?”
Further scrolling reveals more posts that insult Muslims, as well as ones expressing support for Donald Trump. One post from February 6, said, “I understand that black Christians voted for a Muslim anti-American president just because he was black, but I pray that Christian women don't vote for the LIAR Hilliary [sic] just because she is a woman.”
On Facebook, the items were posted on at least four pages — the Broward County Chamber of Commerce’s page, along with pages for the South Florida Chamber of Commerce, the South Florida Women’s Chamber of Commerce, and the Miami-Dade County Chamber of Commerce. All four of those organizations are headed by Zolnowski. Identical posts have been published from a Twitter account listed as belonging to Zolnowski.
“What is the deal with all the heavily christian religious messages on this Chamber of Commerce page?” one man, Richard Lorber, asked in a comment. “And all the articles posted about religion, Muslims, and other far-right nonsense. I thought this was a chamber of commerce, not a partisan political action website. I would avoid doing business with the members of this Chamber until the wacko posting the inappropriate stuff is removed from the organization.”
The Broward Chamber of Commerce was founded in 1998. It routinely hosts meetings and events. But for years, leaders of Broward’s other chambers have said publicly that they do not agree with the way Zolnowski runs the chamber and have distanced themselves from the organization.
According to the South Florida Business Journal’s 2014 Chamber of Commerce rankings, the Broward Chamber had 2,792 members and charged a minimum annual fee of $320. IRS forms from tax year 2011, the latest available on Guidestar, show that the organization brought in $641,698 in revenue ($472,894 from membership dues) that year. Zolnowski was paid a salary of $60,348. In 2009, he made $78,118.
But an IRS spokesperson tells New Times that the chamber was stripped of its 501(c)(6) nonprofit status last May, due to a failure to properly file Forms 990 with the government for three consecutive years. Florida law mandates that chambers of commerce operate as nonprofit entities registered as either 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(6) organizations.
Zolnowski and his wife, Teresa, did not respond to numerous emails, Facebook messages, and phone calls from New Times yesterday. But C. Lon Smith, a chamber board member who says he functions as marketing director, said he had “never seen” the social media pages to which New Times was referring and said he was not aware of any trouble the group may have had with the IRS. After asking for, and being provided links to, both the social media pages and IRS data, Smith did not respond further.
When reached by phone, Al Otero, a former board member with the organization, said he left the chamber about ten years ago. He says he is incorrectly listed as a board member on IRS documents from 2009, 2010, and 2011.
Public records show that Zolnowski has over the years incorporated dozens of other chambers of commerce, including chambers that would have represented Monroe, Hillsborough, and Pinellas counties. These are currently listed as inactive with the Florida Division of Corporations.
According to the domain registry website WhoIs.com, Zolnowski also registered FloridaBusinessNews.com — which appears to be under construction — and ChamberApproved.com, which also appears under construction. In 2011, a Facebook post from Zolnowski's Miami-Dade County Chamber of Commerce described ChamberApproved as a "National Chamber of Commerce approval program making it easier for you to market your goods, services and your website across the U.S."
A spokesperson for the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce told New Times that it was not affiliated with Zolnowski's group.
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“The Miramar Pembroke Pines Regional Chamber of Commerce is not affiliated in any way with the Broward Chamber of Commerce,” the post read. “In fact all of the Broward County Council of Chamber members have been actively trying to educate and distance ourselves from this organization and its subsidiaries. We also believe this Chamber does not meet the Florida law regarding being a Chamber of Commerce.”
A spokesperson for the Broward County Commission said she didn't believe the commission members were aware of the Broward Chamber at all. Broward Mayor Marty Kiar did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.
When reached by phone, Anne Hotte, head of the Greater Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, also said her organization had long been aware of issues with the Broward Chamber.
“They create a bad name for chambers,” she said, ceding that the organization does, at least, offer some marketing events. But “they are not a real chamber, and the way they operate is totally different from how a real chamber operates. It can be very frustrating when they make statements that are heinous.”