Greenpeace and the Salvation Army are hashing out a dispute over tens of millions of dollars today at a mediating table in Seattle, in a story more peculiar than we could make up.

Salvation Army goes to war with Greenpeace

Last July, H. Guy Di Stefano, 90, a resident of Issaquah, Wash., passed away, leaving about $264 million to be divided equally between eight charitable organizations in his last will and testament. Among them was “Greenpeace International,” which in 2005 was absorbed into the Greenpeace Fund. Now, the western division of fellow beneficiary the Salvation Army is challenging Greenpeace’s claim to the cash, arguing that it isn’t exactly the same organization, and that a mere affiliate shouldn’t be able to take home the $33 million in question.

The Salvation Army argues that Greenpeace’s chunk of the change should be split among the other seven charities — the Salvation Army, Direct Relief International, the Santa Barbara Hospice Foundation, the Santa Barbara Visiting Nurse Association, the American Humane Society, the Disabled American Veterans Charitable Service Trust, and the World Wildlife Fund.

The Di Stefano family lived a quiet, modest life in Issaquah, where neighbors had little idea that they were worth that much dough. Guy Di Stefano had owned a jewelry store in California, and his wife Doris’s father, a United Parcel Service employee, had passed his stock in the company on to his daughter, asking her never to sell it. When she passed away in 2005 at the age of 90, the stock — worth a big chunk of change — transferred to her husband, who then outlined in his will which charities he wanted the money to go to.

The question about Greenpeace’s name came to light when Bank of America, the trustee for Di Stefano’s estate, filed a petition in Washington state court inquiring as to what it should do about the fact that Greenpeace International no longer technically exists. Representatives of the bank have said that they only sought clarification, not to deprive Greenpeace of the money, but the bank’s petition prompted the Salvation Army to challenge disbursement.

The parties are meeting with a mediator today as per Washington state law, in an attempt to avoid sending the matter to court. The story was covered in the New York Times last month, but has gotten relatively little attention outside of philanthropy blogs.

“The strongest argument is that it all comes down to donor intent,” said John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace, who was in Seattle today for the mediation. He contends that Di Stefano’s intent was clear: he wanted to bequeath part of his estate to Greenpeace. “It should be honored.”

Michael Woodruff, the general counsel for the Salvation Army’s Western Territory, takes a different view. ”The donor’s intent was specific,” he told the New York Times in February. ”If a corporation or charity named in the trust does not qualify, that gift lapses, and he specifically named Greenpeace International.”

According to the Times piece, Greenpeace Fund is the “successor-in-interest” for Greenpeace International:

Greenpeace has several different nonprofit incarnations. Greenpeace International was created in 1978, Mr. Wetterer said, and Greenpeace Fund was created in 1980. They shared the same central phone number and offices in Washington, D.C., and many employees. During an I.R.S. audit that affirmed the organization’s tax-exempt status, an auditor suggested that Greenpeace reduce the number of its units.

In response, it dissolved Greenpeace International in December 2005. That organization’s board named the Greenpeace Fund as its successor-in-interest, “recognizing that from time to time, charitable gifts could still come in to Greenpeace International Inc.,” Passacantando told theTimes.

Meanwhile, it’s unclear whether the money would even go to the Western Territory division of the Salvation Army, since the will names “The Salvation Army & its Components” and lists its location as New York, which under the Salvation Army’s policies means the money would go to the Eastern Territory, headquartered in New York. The Western region is claiming that it should get all $33 million because Di Stefano lived in Washington state — plus the roughly $4 million the Salvation Army would get if Greenpeace’s slice were divvied up.

“I’m astonished that Greenpeace even has to be in this,” Passacantando told Grist. “There are even people in other parts of the Salvation Army that I’ve talked to who were shocked to learn that the Salvation Army would attempt this.”

The Di Stefanos’ gift was the fifth-most-generous charitable contribution in the U.S. in 2006, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, totaling $264 million. And the $33 million is the largest single donation Greenpeace has ever received — that is, if the group actually gets it.

“First you get the best news of all time, and then you get the most bizarre news of all time,” Passacantando told Grist.