Category Archives: Non-profits

Charity Fraud Charges: Four Down, Hundreds to Go

by Categorized: Consumer Affairs, Ethics, Government, Law Enforcement, Non-profits Date:

The fraud case brought against four spectacularly inefficient cancer charities is welcome news to watchdogs who have studied the fleecing of generous donors by Donateunscrupulous nonprofits. But it is only the tip of the iceberg.

Americans donate hundreds of billions of dollars each year to more than 1.5  million tax-exempt organizations. The great majority are legitimate operations. But some – hundreds for sure – are little more than conduits that funnel money to professional fundraising firms while devoting pennies on the dollar to charitable purposes.

And there is often little the government can do about it. Continue reading

Veteran Boston Investigative Reporter Detained in Russia

by Categorized: First Amendment, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Non-profits Date:

Joe Bergantino, executive director of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and a long-time Boston television reporter, was detained in Russia Thursday while conducting a training session for fellowBergantino journalists, according to a release from the New England First Amendment Center.

Bergantino and Randy Covington of the University of South Carolina were leading a workshop with Russian journalists when authorities interrupted the session and took the two men away, the release states, citing Beth Daley, a reporter for NECIR who has spoken with Bergantino.

Daley said the men were accused of “teaching an educational workshop illegally because they were using the wrong visas,” according to the release. The men were then taken to a Russian court and ordered to halt the workshop and leave the country.

Bergantino, a former reporter for WBZ-TV and ABC News, co-founded the non-profit New England Center for Investigative Reporting in 2009.

Veterans Charity Loses $830,000 to Theft – and Tens of Millions to Costly Fundraising

by Categorized: Law Enforcement, Non-profits Date:

My colleague Kelly Glista reports that a bookkeeper for the National Veterans Services Fund has been accused of embezzling more than $830,000 from the Darien-based nonprofit.

But that’s pennies compared to the millions the charity loses year after year in lopsided fundraising contracts.NVSFlogo

As I’ve written before, charity watchdogs consider the National Veterans Services Fund among the worst nonprofits in the nation, consistently receiving pennies on the dollar for the millions raised from patriotic Americans.

When I first wrote about the National Veterans Services Fund for a 2005 story on veterans charities, fundraising costs at the organization were eating up nearly 98 cents of every dollar raised – meaning every time a generous donor gave $500, all but $11 of that donation was spent on printing and mailing costs or pocketed by professional fundraisers. That made it the least efficient of the 286 veterans charities analyzed by the Courant.

I checked in again on the charity a year ago, after Charity Navigator, a respected rating agency, put the National Veterans Services Fund at the top of its list of “consistently low rated charities” – earning zero-star ratings for ten straight years. By then, the charity’s deal with fundraisers allowed the solicitors to keep as much as 84 cents of every dollar raised – an improvement, but still five times what the average veterans charity spends on fundraising.

Overall, from 2000 to 2012, Americans who were solicited by phone and mail donated $72 million to the National Veterans Services Fund, according to its IRS filings. But $56 million of that donated money came off the top to cover the cost of all that soliciting. Even among veterans charities that use expensive professional fundraisers, the Darien charity’s fundraising percentage is more than twice that of other nonprofits. That gap alone amounts to $30 million in donated money since 2000 that wasn’t spent on charity.

Cynthia Tanner could face 20 years in prison if convicted of diverting $830,000 from the charity. Meanwhile, the National Veterans Services Fund spends about that much on fundraising every 40 days. Phil Kraft, the organization’s president, treasurer and executive director, has a ready answer to concerns about the charity’s huge fundraising costs, saying those unfavorable contracts with professional fundraisers are the only way he can stay in business.

His response a year ago was nearly identical to what he told me in 2005: “A small percentage of something is better than 100 percent of nothing.”

Affidavits Tell Sad Tale of Collapse of Hurley Scholarship Foundation

by Categorized: Education, Government, Legal Affairs, Non-profits, Uncategorized Date:

The inevitable dissolution of the battered Doc Hurley Scholarship Foundation came a step closer Thursday with Judge Carl Schuman’s order barring the foundation from engaging in any official acts while he considers the fate of the once-revered scholarship fund.

On April 7, barring objection – and no objection has been registered so far – Schuman may formally eliminate the organization Walter “Doc” Hurley dreamed up four decades ago to help needy high school students reach their college dreams. The foundation – which held more than $1 million in assets seven years ago – is now penniless, and Hurley’s daughter, Muriel, is facing a civil suit brought by the attorney general accusing her of looting the charity.

The collapse of the Hurley foundation is on stark display in a series of affidavits filed by nine Hurley scholarship winners who didn’t receive the money they were promised. As part of the Courant’s investigation of the foundation, we tracked down more than a dozen winners who were shortchanged, and lawyers for the state then soon followed up.

Utsarga Bhattarai was awarded a $2,000 scholarship when he graduated from West Hartford’s Hall High School in 2008. But he said the money never came. “On multiple occasions, up and through my junior year of college, I contacted the Foundation through multiple telephone calls and e-mails, but never was contacted by the Foundation,” he wrote.

That sentiment is repeated over and over. “I sent multiple e-mails and made multiple telephone calls to the Foundation and left messages, but never received e-mails back or any return telephone calls,” wrote Alyssa Cusano, who received $500 of the $2,000 she was promised.

Brittany Cavaliere left phone and e-mail messages after her aid stopped. So did Jermaine Thomas and Amanda Trothier. And several other students. But they said they either received no response, or were assured that the scholarship money was on its way. But it never arrived.

The affidavits are included in the dissolution lawsuit merely to bolster the state’s case that the Hurley Foundation was no longer operating as a charitable organization and should be shut down. There is no means through that process to make the students whole.

State officials aren’t foreclosing the possibility of recovering assets that could be distributed to past scholarship winners. But the foundation’s bank accounts are empty, and finding any seizable assets is proving to be a difficult feat.

The students’ affidavits are below:

HurleyExhibits (Text)

In Connecticut Schools, Strange Law Fosters Strange Secrecy

by Categorized: Education, Employment, First Amendment, Government, Non-profits, Politics, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

The folks who run the state university and college system have decided to reward top performers by taking more than half a million dollars in taxpayer funds and distributing it as merit raises to some or all of 279 eligible managers and administrators.

And as my colleague Kathy Megan reported, education officials are declining, for now at least, to tell the public which of the public’s employees have been awarded additional chunks of the public’s money. In fact, they say, it would violate state law to do so.

That assertion has not been tested by the Freedom of Information Commission or the courts. topsecretBut it is the latest strange outcome of a strange series of laws that have kept taxpayers in the dark about teacher evaluations for nearly 30 years.

It began, somewhat fittingly, in 1984, with the passage of a law titled “Nondisclosure of records of teacher performance and evaluation,” which made teacher evaluations in local public schools exempt from the state’s Freedom of Information Act. The law was pitched, in the words of a later court case, as a way to “prevent parents from ‘teacher shopping’ in public schools by looking at evaluations and then demanding that their children be placed with one specific teacher.”

Remember before 1984, when hordes of parents would crowd into Main Offices across the state, poring over every 2nd Grade teachers’ evals before demanding that their child’s schedule be customized accordingly?

Me neither.

Parents, of course, have never needed to scour performance reviews to know who the great teachers are in their schools. But even if tamping down on teacher-shopping were the true intent of the law, let’s dig a little deeper into the statutory language. The law protects “records of teacher performance and evaluation.” But the legislature then added this bit of linguistic gymnastics: “For the purposes of this section, ‘teacher’ includes each certified professional employee below the rank of superintendent.”

This, presumably, was intended to stem the epidemic of parents engaging in principal-shopping and librarian-shopping and assistant-superintendent-shopping, as all of their performance evaluations were placed off-limits as well.

The bottom line of that strangely expansive language is that in a state with more than 51,000 certified public-school educators, the people of Connecticut are entitled to review the performance of exactly 166 of them.

The 1984 law covered only K-12 schools. But that didn’t last.

Five years later, professors in the state’s higher education system decided they’d like the same sort of confidentiality enjoyed by their elementary and high school colleagues. So a nearly identically worded statute was put on the books blocking public access to performance records for the faculty and professional staff at UConn, the state university system and the state’s technical colleges.

It is unlikely that law was passed to prevent students from “professor-shopping” and trying to secure a spot with the best teachers, since that is exactly what students do when registering for classes in college.

In the current controversy, the state will ultimately reveal which employees received merit raises and in what amounts; at worst, that information will be deducible once new paychecks – which are public records – start going out.

But if you were curious, for example, about what any particular employee did to earn, say, the maximum merit increase, then sorry – it’s the official policy of the state of Connecticut that taxpayers have no business asking.

You Want Those Public Records? That’ll Be $16 Million Please.

by Categorized: First Amendment, Law Enforcement, Media, Non-profits, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

When reporters at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution sought access to public records about tax-lien sales that were costing residents of Fulton County millions of dollars, officials said the newspaper could have the data – for a fee.

That fee? $16.2 million.

It was the latest in a string of roadblocks county officials had erected in hopes of avoiding scrutiny of the costly deals, and it persisted until the state attorney general threatened to join the newspaper in suing the county pols.

That snubbing of Georgia’s freedom-of-information laws earned Fulton County a finalist spot – but not the grand prize – in the inaugural “Golden Padlock” award from the journalism group Investigative Reporters and Editors. The partly tongue-in-cheek award is given in recognition of “unrelenting commitment to undermining the public’s right to know.”

As bad as the county tax commissioner’s actions were deemed to be, IRE gave the top prize to the U.S. Border Patrol for what it called stonewalling by the federal agency in response to requests for information about deadly shootings by agents.  “The U.S. Border Patrol’s resounding silence on fatal shootings involving its agents epitomizes the kind of intransigence for which this award was created,” IRE president David Cay Johnston said in a press release.

Three other agencies earned finalist spots:

    • JobsOhio, a non-profit economic development agency that replaced the Ohio Department of Development, and which was made exempt from most public-records laws despite being established with public money and having access to a huge pool of assets from the state’s control of liquor profits.
    • New Jersey Transit, which responded to a request for the agency’s hurricane preparedness plan by providing a document entirely blacked out except for the title.
    • The Centers for Disease Control, for its slow response to requests for information on Lyme Disease, including one case in which a requester was made to wait more than five years for records.

The reporters’ group also inducted the U.S. Department of Justice and Attorney General Eric Holder into its “Hall of Shame” for what it called the “Orwellian practice of monitoring journalists’ phone records in pursuit of whistleblowers.”

Charity Check: National Veterans Services Fund

by Categorized: Charity Check, Non-profits Date:

Is the Darien-based National Veterans Services Fund one of the worst charities in America? A new rating by the the well-respected group Charity Navigator suggests that by some measures, it could be a contender for that dubious distinction.

We’ve written about the National Veterans Services Fund before. The non-profit, run for more than a decade by Phillip Kraft, has generated about $70 million in donations in the last decade, but only a small fraction of the money was actually spent on charitable services. In the year ending June 30, 2012, well-meaning donors gave nearly $9 million to the fund. But as much as 84 cents of every dollar donated went back to the professional fundraiser.

Charity Navigator gives the National Veterans Services Fund zero stars – as it has for each of the last nine years. That record put the Fund in the No. 1 spot of a new list of “10 Consistently Low Rated Charities” published by the rating group.

“These ten charities have earned the most consecutive 0-star, ‘extremely poor’ ratings meaning they consistently perform far below industry standards and below nearly all similar charities.,” Charity Navigator reports. Not surprisingly, charities that claim to help children and law enforcement are heavily represented on the list, as those heart-string causes are commonly used in fundraising campaigns that deliver only a pittance to the non-profit group.

There are non-profits on the list that provide little to no true charitable services. But that is not the case with the National Veterans Services Fund. Kraft, who collects a six-figure salary, says he and three other workers – one full-time and two part-time – have helped thousands of warriors pay their bills and navigate the Veterans Administration. He wishes fundraising costs didn’t deplete 80 percent or more of the millions donated, but says he and his crew lack the resources and expertise to raise money on their own.

“To blame a charity for the price charged by our fundraisers is like blaming a driver for the price of gas,” he said.

Kraft said his small operation has picked up the tab for everything from wheelchairs to utility bills to dentures, and has paid for temporary housing for down-on-their luck vets. But under the charity’s lopsided fundraising, every dollar it spends requires more than $5 in donations. So a wheelchair with a $175 pricetag costs donors to the charity nearly $1,000. And covering Kraft’s $118,800 salary requires more than $600,000 in donations.

Still, Kraft is unapologetic, saying those pricey fundraising contracts are the only way for him to stay in business.

“A small percentage of something is better than 100 percent of nothing,” he said.

Click the chart above for our full Charity Check report on the National Veterans Services Fund. And see below for the group’s most recent tax return.

Download (PDF, 1.26MB)

Courant Investigation: Dozens of Developmentally Disabled Adults Lose Their Lives to Neglect

by Categorized: Health, Non-profits, Politics Date:

They are among the most vulnerable of the state’s citizens – developmentally disabled adults living hc-dds-deaths-0303-20130302in facilities large and small under the supervision of the Department of Developmental Services. But in a scenario all sides agree occurs too frequently, those vulnerable citizens lose their lives to neglect.

From 2004 to 2010, investigators cited neglect in the deaths of 76 developmentally disabled adults receiving services from the Department of Developmental Services, a Courant investigation has found. One was placed in a scalding bathtub without workers checking the temperature. Two drowned during poorly supervised outings. Several choked to death despite protocols designed to keep them safe. Others fell ill and received inadequate medical intervention.

The Courant today begins a three-day investigation, exploring the reasons behind the spate of deaths at group homes, institutions, hospitals and nursing homes, and the efforts to keep their fragile residents safe. Read that story here. On Monday, the Courant will reporting on the thousands of reported cases of non-fatal abuse and assault involving developmentally disabled residents. And on Tuesday, the paper will explain a trend toward placing developmentally disabled adults in nursing homes, despite near-universal agreement of those involved that the practice is undesirable.

The package of stories will also include several profiles of developmentally disabled adults who lost their lives to neglect. And an interactive timeline provides details on all 76 who died.

Charity Check: Connecticut Public Broadcasting

by Categorized: Charity Check, Education, Media, Non-profits, UConn Date:

Connecticut Public Television lost its lucrative deal last month to broadcast the UConn women’s basketball games, a gut-punch that left worried employees moping in the hallways, CEO Jerry Franklin told the Connecticut Post. It also has observers wondering about the finances of parent organization Connecticut Public Broadcasting, which operates CPTV along with WNPR, the state’s public-radio station.

Once a blip on the airwaves, CPBN has grown into a $20 million-a-year operation, and the membership dues and corporate sponsorships spawned by the UConn deal were major drivers. That money is now in jeopardy, even as CPBN is moving ahead with some aggressive — and potentially risky — expansion plans. Most notably, the network has a multimillion-dollar deal to develop lab space at its Asylum Hill headquarters for the Hartford school system’s Journalism and Media Academy. While officials believe the partnership will eventually pay off, Franklin has said CPBN may have to take out a bank loan if the network is unable to raise enough upfront money.

The station has also faced the loss of recurring state aid for operating expenses, although it did receive a $1 million state grant for transmission and broadcast equipment last year, and underwriting contracts with the Department of Public Health provided $450,000 more.

And if all that weren’t enough financial plates for Franklin to keep spinning, a union leader and members of the Connecticut Citizens Action Group picketed the station Tuesday in advance of a board meeting, protesting the recent layoff of three television production workers and a fourth employee who worked on the network’s website. The small band of activists held six signs — half of which took direct aim at Franklin’s salary.

Meg Sakellarides, CPBN’s chief financial officer, said the network has requested a meeting with union officials to discuss alternatives to the layoffs. “CPTV has a stronger than ever commitment to local programming. However, funding for much of it is still speculative. It would be irresponsible to maintain fixed costs that cannot be covered by confirmed revenues,” Sakellarides said in a statement. “If the planned layoffs cannot be avoided, CPTV’s collective bargaining agreement allows for workers to be recalled as funding is secured and that would be our hope.”

In the statement, Sakellarides also noted that “cuts and sacrifices are being made across the board with many senior managers doubling up and assuming the responsibilities of managers who have left but have not been replaced.”

To see how Connecticut Public Broadcasting fared in the last fiscal year, click the summary chart below to access our Charity Check report, which provides background on the organization and details on its revenue and expenses.

Take a Peek Inside Every Public Teacher Contract in Connecticut

by Categorized: Data, Education, Non-profits, Politics, Transparency/FOI Date:

ConnCAN, the New Haven-based education-reform group, has slogged through every available public teacher contract in the state and built a database listing salary ranges, number of teaching days, length of workday, class-size limits and other measurements.

“It is important to note that in many places, the contract is a baseline, and there are many teachers and administrators who go above and beyond the minimum requirements in these contracts. For example, we know that many, many teachers work much longer days than what is required in their contract,” ConnCAN wrote in an introduction to the database. “However, when disputes arise or reforms are sought, the contract is a document that guides decisions and work rules and we believe that we must, therefore, look closely at what these contracts stipulate.”

The database includes 173 “local education agencies,” including local public school districts, regional districts, charter schools, and the state vocational-technical high school system. (One district, ACES, is not included due, ConnCAN said, to delays in contract negotiations.) Districts can be compared side-by-side, and ConnCAN has included some analysis of the data and assorted factoids. (“The average salary for a teacher with 5 years of experience and a bachelor’s degree is $48,783.”)

“ConnCAN created this Teacher Contract Database to provide free, public access to teacher collective bargaining agreements for every single school district in Connecticut,” the group said. “These agreements shape local district education policy, and we believe that providing access to this information in a user-friendly, web-based searchable form will be essential to inform the public dialogue on district-level education reform.”

The database is accessible here.