A decade later after the attack on the Twin Towers, an Associated Press investigation has revealed wide-spread incompetence, dishonesty and waste among the many 9-11 memorial charities set up in the wake of the tragedy.
“There are those that spent huge sums on themselves, those that cannot account for the money they received, those that have few results to show for their spending and those that have yet to file required income tax returns. Yet many of the charities continue to raise money in the name of Sept. 11,” reports the AP. Among the fiascos recounted in the report:
- An Arizona-based charity raised $713,000 for a 9/11 memorial quilt that was supposed to be big enough to cover 25 football fields. Instead, there are only several hundred decorated sheets packed in boxes at a storage unit. One-third of the money raised went to the charity’s founder and relatives, according to tax records and interviews. Charity founder Kevin Held spent more than $170,000 of the donated money on travel since 2004, seldom traveling without his two Alaskan malamute dogs. He also ran up $36,691 in credit card and bank charges since 2005 and $10,460 for an expense listed as “petty” in 2009. Held gave himself a $200 per week car allowance, rent reimbursement and a $45,000 payment for an unreported loan. Quizzed by AP reporters, Held’s jaw-dropping answer to all this was, . “If I made a mistake, I made a mistake. If I did, then crucify me. I never said I was a professional at this.”
- A charity for a 9/11 Garden of Forgiveness at the World Trade Center site has raised $200,000, but there is no Garden of Forgiveness, and isn’t likely to be. The Rev. Lyndon Harris, who founded the nonprofit in 2005, said he formed the charity to fulfill “our sacred oath” to build the garden. Tax records show that the Episcopal priest paid himself $126,530 in salary and used another $3,562 for dining expenses between 2005 and 2007.
Harris’s explanation is as amazing as Held’s. He told the AP that he sees his charity’s work as a success even if there is no garden at the site. “I saw our mission as teaching about forgiveness,” he said.
As in “forgive us for stealing your money under false pretenses,” perhaps?
- Urban Life Ministries, another Manhattan 9/11 charity, raised more than $4 million for victims and first responders but only accounted for about $670,000 on its tax returns. Along with almost four dozen other 9/11 charities, Urban Life lost its IRS tax-exempt status this year because it failed to show how funds were collected and spent. The charity’s creator, the Rev. Carl Keyes, an Assemblies of God minister, acknowledged that his organization did not file taxes for all years but insists that it means well, and hopes the nonprofit’s efforts in response to 9/11 and its later charity work after Hurricane Katrina won’t be tainted by his bad accounting.
“You’re going to beat me up in an article because we’re bad managers?” Keyes asked the AP, plaintively.
Yes, Reverend, and you deserve every bit of it. In charity, as in all other pursuits, undertaking a task that you are unfit to manage is irresponsible and unethical, and accepting money, no matter how noble the purpose, without knowing how to use it and account for it properly while failing to meet the charity’s goals is a terrible breach of trust.
But Rev. Keyes had lots of company. In virtually every category of 9/11 nonprofit, the AP analysis of tax documents and other official records revealed lies, schemes, ineptitude, shady dealings, questionable expenses, sloppy record-keeping and deceit. The fact that many of those responsible had good intentions (though many did not) should not shield them from legal consequences. Charitable funds are precious, and the trust that charities engender is fragile, easily destroyed by charlatans and incompetents. Misusing and mismanaging donations betrays the cause, the donors, and charity itself.