Fuzzy Funds for the Jena 6

At least $500,000 raised to cover legal costs for the Jena 6 defendants is unaccounted for, reports the Chicago Tribune. Even as Mychal Bell's trial is underway, his lawyers say they haven't received a penny from the fund. The families of the Jena 6 also refuse to publicly disclose how they're spending an estimated $250,000 in an account they control.

ALISON STEWART, host:

Now to a BRYANT PARK PROJECT follow-up on the Jena Six. Last week, the last Jena Six member to be arraigned pleaded not guilty to charges of battery in connection with the beating of a white classmate 11 months ago. Like the others, he initially faced attempted murder charges, but the charges were reduced to aggravated second-degree battery during that November 7th arraignment.

Now, a day later, lawyers for Mychal Bell, the most well-known of the Jena Six - because he stood trial - filed a motion for the dismissal of charges against the client because it was in juvenal court on grounds of double jeopardy because he did stand trial already. Now, that was dismissed.

So who's paying for all this legal action, is the question. Well, funds were raised on behalf of the six young men. Yet, the Chicago Tribune reported this week that at least $500,000 in Jena Six donations remain basically unaccounted for. Now, Bell's trial is under way. His lawyers say they haven't received a penny from some of the Jena Six legal funds.

It's a blurred money trail, and it's being followed by Howard Witt, the southwest bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune. Hi, Howard.

Mr. HOWARD WITT (Southwest Bureau Chief, Chicago Tribune): Hello. How are you?

STEWART: I'm doing well. Let's get to the - some of the basics. Who is questioning where the funds are right now and why now?

Mr. WITT: Well, there's a - question are swirling in a couple of directions. First of all, the biggest questions were raised last week by a radio host named Michael Baisden. He's an African-American radio host on a syndicated radio show that's pretty popular. And he himself has been trying to raise money for the Jena Six. But last week, he went on the air and started asking questions about a group called Color of Change. Color of Change is an Internet-based civil rights group that raised the largest single amount for the Jena Six. They raised about $212,000.

Anyway, it's peculiar why he would have started casting aspersions about that group and asking where has the money gone, and he said they were shady and a bunch of other things. Because, in fact, Color of Change is the only group that's raised money on behalf of the Jena Six that's been completely transparent about what happened to that money. They have posted on their Web site images of all the counsel checks that they have written.

They have paid out all - virtually all the funds that they've - was taken in to the attorneys for the six defendants. And they, you know, they have proof of that, which they're happy to share, and they have shared them on their Web site. So they've been completely transparent. Whereas Michael Baisden, the guy who's been casting aspersions, he himself has been raising money, but his people won't reveal exactly how much they've raised or exactly how they've distributed it. So that's a peculiar case.

Then there's another big pile of the money estimated to be perhaps as much as $250,000 that resides in a bank account that's controlled by the six families themselves. That's the money that was sent in checks to the families and to a Jena Six defense fund. They will not say how much exactly is in there or how they have spent it. They've said that their attorneys have advised them not to reveal that. But that simply has created the perception that, possibly, something is going fishy with that money.

There's all kinds of rumors all over the Internet that the parents have been driving fancy cars. There's no evidence of that, but that's the rumors. There's been pictures floating around that some of the Jena Six defendants posing like a rap stars with money stuffed in their mouth. So there's just - there's this fog that's descended now over this to the great chagrin of many of the civil rights group that have raised money on their behalf because the last thing they figure these defendants need is some kind of question mark hanging over the money.

STEWART: Let's roll back and talk about a couple of these things individually. Michael Baisden, who we reached out to for comment - we did not get a response by the time we went to air this morning. How was he raising money? And why isn't he telling people how much he raised and where it's going?

Mr. WITT: Well, you know, that's a great question. I mean, you know, he's - there's two fundraisers that I know of that he did. The first he did was on the eve of the big march on September 20th, the march that attracted more than 20,000 people to Jena. The night before that, he held a fundraiser in Alexandria, which is the biggest town near to Jena in central Louisiana. He basically collected a bunch of cash and then, he says, distributed it to the families. But his assistants and folks will not say exactly how much they've collected or exactly how they distributed it. He also did a book signing or advertised a book signing as well. So it looks like he might have been selling some of his own books as well on the side at that event.

Then he also had a big fundraiser over the weekend at which he was aiming to raise a million dollars on behalf of, not just the Jena Six, but he says he's trying to set up some new defense fund to help African-Americans in legal trouble across the country. But, again, as far as I know, unless he - he might have started giving figures yesterday, I don't know, but up until when I wrote the story over the weekend, he hadn't said how much he'd raised or how he exactly intended to distribute it. So he may yet do that, but, you know, so far, that hasn't been the case.

STEWART: And when I sent the e-mail to him and to his people mid-day yesterday, I still hadn't received anything back. Of course, if we do, we will post it on our Web site.

We're talking to Howard Witt who is the southwest bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune about where is all the money that was donated to help pay for the legal bills of the Jena Six.

Okay, so we talked about Michael Baisden. And there's also the family fund you mentioned. Do we know how much is in the family fund, and what does that mean, a family fund?

Mr. WITT: Well, we don't exactly know how much is in there. The estimates of the folks who are close to the families range anywhere from a hundred and seventy thousand to $250,000. And this is a fund, you know, if you recall back when the Jena Six was really in the news in August and September leading up to the march, there were a lot of collections going on, including probably a lot of scam artists that we'll never know about who claimed to be raising money on behalf of the Jena Six, but, you know, the money probably went into their pockets.

But, anyway, one of the major funds was Jena Six defense funds. So there was the - this was - on the Internet. It was on a Web site put up by the families, and it was a place where you could basically - a PO Box where you could mail checks and that went into this bank in Jena.

But, as I say, you know, that money - it may well be that that money is still sitting there and has not been spent. It could be that it's properly been paid out to the lawyers. But the question is nobody knows.

STEWART: Hmm.

Mr. WITT: And in the absence of actual transparency and disclosure about what's happened with that money, that's what's giving rise now to these nasty rumors. And it would seem that the best way to dispel that would be for those families to display that money and show the accounting for it in the same way that Color of Change has done, and that could pretty much just put this to rest. But…

STEWART: Is there any reason, any law that they need to disclose this money?

Mr. WITT: Any reason - no, I don't believe so that I know of, particularly because right now, the money simply resides in an account that's controlled by the families. They say they're going to set up a actual trustee account and appoint an independent trustee to disperse the money. And if they do that, perhaps there's other kind of state laws that would kick in. But right now, it's just…

STEWART: It's about appearances it seems like.

Mr. WITT: Right.

STEWART: Is there any sort of overarching - if there are shenanigans, is there any sort of overarching group that monitors this kind of thing? Is there anybody to whom these people are accountable?

Mr. WITT: Not if it's not an official charity. If it's were like a registered, you know, 401C3 charity, then you're talking about some legal oversight that'll probably fall to the attorney general in Louisiana. But in this case, no, because we're talking about, really, stuff that's just done on a person-to-person basis. So other than, you know, just personal integrity, there are - I don't see any other laws that are involved here.

STEWART: Howard Witt is the southwest bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune. Thanks for sharing your reporting with us, Howard.

Mr. WITT: Sure.

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