Conn. officials eye funds soliciting donations
HARTFORD, Conn. -- Connecticut and Newtown officials say they are trying to get a handle on the number of charitable funds and organizations that have been raising money for causes related to last month’s shooting massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary school.
The biggest, the Sandy Hook School Support Fund, which is being administered for free by the United Way, has taken in more than $6 million in donations in the three weeks since the fatal shootings of 20 first-graders and six school administrators.
But Newtown Selectman Will Rodgers says the town has compiled a preliminary eight-page list of other groups that have been raising money to pay for everything from funerals to mental health counseling for first responders to a permanent memorial or a new school.
"We are going to send a copy to the state attorney general, the FBI and Consumer Protection asking them to take whatever effort they can take to vet these funds," he said.
State Consumer Protection Commissioner William M. Rubenstein said his department is already well into that process and has identified dozens of Newtown-related charities.
He said that while most of the groups raising money are well-meaning, many of them are not properly registered with the state, something they were legally required to do before they began collecting money.
He said in most cases state officials are meeting with the charities, outlining for them their responsibilities and making sure they are now taking the steps to come into compliance with the law. But, he added, several fraud investigations that could lead to criminal charges are under way.
"We don’t think that’s a large bulk of the money, but nevertheless it’s reprehensible, and we will refer those to the attorney general for prosecution when we find them," he said.
Officials say they also are finding some funds that have raised thousands of dollars for victims’ families without the families’ knowledge or approval. Others are raising money for costs that already have been donated, such as funeral services.
Rubenstein said giving to the United Way fund or another already established nonprofit is a good way to ensure that money is not being misused.
Some of the newer groups have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. An organization of local residents running the Newtown Memorial Fund has close to $500,000 in its coffers. It says that money will go to victims, first responders, a memorial and scholarships.
The group’s treasurer, Robert Davenport, a certified public accountant, said it already has registered with the state and is awaiting its official letter from the Internal Revenue Service designating it as a charity.
"We’re hoping that in the near future we can coordinate our efforts with the other funds so that there is not duplicative efforts and that all the money is raised can go for things that are needed for the families of the victims and for a memorial and for the future," he said. "We think we can be part of that."
Some other more established organizations are having a harder time raising money.
The nonprofit Newtown Youth Academy, which opened its sports and fitness center free of charge to the town’s children after the Dec. 14 tragedy, has raised just $12,000.
That money is earmarked for providing youth sports, after-school programs, counseling programs and programs for first responders at the center.
"We don’t want to look like we have our hand out," said Peter D’Amico, the owner. "But we’re already providing services, and we’d like to establish more and keep them as cost-free as we can."
Meanwhile, Rodgers, the selectman, said the town is setting up a charity foundation. He has been put on a committee that will begin deciding how that foundation will distribute the money donated to the town and the undesignated School Support Fund.
He said that organization also can take over the charities of well-intentioned people who find they are in over their heads.
"This foundation will be able to deal with their regulatory and compliance work and tax issues," he said. "The money they’ve raised will then go back to them to spend."
Rodgers said they hope to have the foundation fully set up in a month but it likely will be one or two more before they begin making distribution decisions.
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