RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
We turn now to a much praised weekend vacation offered as a gift to military families.
NPR has learned organizers do not have the charitable status they've claim, and they appear to be in violation of federal and state laws. The Snowball Express event, as it's called, was designed to help ease holiday pain for the families of servicemen and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last week, 900 widows, widowers and children were treated to a Southern California adventure, including a day at Disneyland.
But NPR's Howard Berkes has documented fund-raising practices that misled donors.
HOWARD BERKES: This is a story about a complicated guy trying to do a good thing, but being a bit sloppy about it and maybe breaking the law. His name is Michael Scott Kerr, and he organized the Snowball Express, the Southern California weekend vacation for hundreds of military widows, widowers and their kids, including Kelly Gibbons and her two children.
KELLY GIBBONS: I mean for somebody like him to put together this and rally behind everybody behind him was amazing. He is an amazing man with a special heart.
BERKES: Somebody like him is a reference to Michael Kerr's troubled past, including drug addiction, homelessness, bankruptcy, a $45,000 debt in unpaid child support, an outstanding arrest warrant, a conviction for driving under the influence, and a suspended security's license.
MICHAEL SCOTT KERR: Perhaps because of my past and the things that I have done, I wasn't the best person to do that, but you know what, I was the only person willing to do it.
BERKES: Kerr and his wife Jeannie spent months wrangling a million dollars in donated services, a $100,000 in contributions, 500 volunteers and 900 widows, widowers and kids.
SCOTT KERR: It's sad that the real story behind the Snowball Express doesn't come out. It's sad that the real story about someone who went through what I went through, pulled themselves back up and could reach out and do something like this had that ability to do that as a result of what these soldiers died for. That's the real story.
BERKES: Actually, there's another story about doing all this legally. The Kerrs solicited charitable contributions under the name Snowball Express and the M. Scott Kerr Foundation. But neither entity is tax-exempt under federal law or charitable under California law, according to state and federal records. The Kerrs are not legally authorized to solicit charitable contributions or to say they're tax-exempt, but they've clearly done both, on their own Web site and in e-mails and contribution envelopes obtained by NPR.
This is no big deal to Michael and Jeannie Kerr.
SCOTT KERR: Howard, we were operating under advice we were given by professionals and in complete good faith.
JEANNIE KERR: And we did the best we could with what we had to work with in a very short amount of time, and it was outstanding, what we accomplished.
BERKES: The Kerrs ignored what seems to be the best advice. They were told about the legal requirements at least a month before the Snowball Express event and then received a detailed e-mail about them three weeks before. The advice came from Mamie Maywhort, an accountant who runs a military support group called Homefront America.
MAMIE MAYWHORT: I have seen too many organizations get themselves in trouble because they do put the cart before the horse. So then, you know, money coming in; it's just that things can fall through the cracks.
BERKES: Maywhort helped the Kerrs process more than $31,000 in contributions. They say the money is properly deposited and will cover legitimate Snowball Express expenses. But it's difficult to know for sure, since they sidestepped the law and the accountability and transparency the law requires. Rick Cohen is the former director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.
RICK COHEN: What particularly bothers me about this, though, is that this is one more example of charities that play fast and loose with the law, but they hide behind the characteristics of needy beneficiaries, in this case the family members of soldiers killed or wounded in Iraq.
BERKES: Michael and Jeannie Kerr say they'll file the necessary paperwork now, but it's not that simple. They could be fined $25,000 for each misleading solicitation. They could face a $10,000 fine for failing to register as a charity. And their donors could get in trouble for claiming bogus deductions. There's even a possible California criminal charge, theft by false pretenses. It's not what Michael Scott Kerr envisioned, but more trouble could be the ultimate legacy of the Snowball Express.
Howard Berkes, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And you're listening on this Christmas morning to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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