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Schiavo case has myriad fund sources

Conservative groups, bloggers and a foundation are among those urgently seeking money in a quest to keep Terri Schiavo alive.

STEPHEN NOHLGREN and TOM ZUCCO
Published March 28, 2005

From dollar bills in a Swiss Miss box outside a Pinellas Park hospice to $300,000 donated by an Arizona "family values" group, Americans have opened their wallets to Terri Schiavo.

Conservative advocacy organizations are raising money through their Web sites and newsletters. Schiavo's parents and siblings have a foundation dedicated to keeping her alive. Even bloggers have chipped in, raising money for newspaper ads.

"Help Save Terri Schiavo's Life," read the top headline on Friday's home page of RightMarch.com. Just below the headline, a button allowed visitors to listen to 31/2 minutes of Schiavo seemingly moaning after her feeding tube was removed March 18. Below that, people were encouraged to "give an emergency donation."

According to the Web site, RightMarch was formed in 2003 "to give hundreds of thousands of hardworking, patriotic Americans ... a strong collective voice."

"They're Going to Kill My Daughter Terri Schiavo Unless Good People Like You Help us Stop Them," writes Bob Schindler, Schiavo's father, in an Internet solicitation letter for the Life Legal Defense Foundation, which helped underwrite the Schindler family's legal fees.

Donors of $100 or more can receive a videotape of Schiavo in her bed, as can anyone who promises to show the tape and the solicitation letter to friends.

Members of the Schindler family, drained by last-ditch lobbying and stress over their dying daughter, were unavailable to comment on fundraising. Dana Cody, the Life Legal Defense Foundation's executive director, said the solicitation letter did not cause "a big rush to support the case."

What did help was a $300,000 donation several years ago from the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, another "prolife" legal aid group. That money went to St. Petersburg attorney Patricia Anderson, then the Schindler family's lawyer, Cody said, though it didn't fully compensate Anderson for fees and costs of her three-plus years of work.

Money for lawyers has long been a contentious issue in Schiavo litigation.

Schiavo's husband, Michael, who wanted to withhold tube feeding after a few years of unsuccessful therapy, had the legal advantage early on. A malpractice verdict gave him $300,000 and her $700,000, and he was guardian of her money. The Schindlers, people of modest means, had only recently paid off a federal tax lien on their Gulfport condominium.

Michael Schiavo, as guardian, could pay attorney George Felos more than $350,000 from Terri's trust fund because the court agreed he was doing it for her benefit.

St. Petersburg attorney Pam Campbell represented the Schindlers for free and couldn't afford to take many depositions or hire expert medical witnesses, she said last week.

These days, all but about $40,000 of Schiavo's trust fund has been spent, and Felos says he is not getting paid. Felos also has said that once Mrs. Schiavo dies, her estate will be in debt.

Jon Eisenberg, a California lawyer who joined Michael Schiavo's legal team last week, said his side is struggling to match the bankrolls of national organizations that are mining their antiabortion, antieuthanasia, family values constituents to finance the Schindlers' appeals.

"I paid my own way to Washington. I'm $2,500 out of pocket. None of us are getting paid," Eisenberg said. "I sleep two hours a night."

Michael Schiavo is getting help from one big organization - the American Civil Liberties Union - which has handled most of the appellate work, said Florida executive director Howard Simon.

ACLU membership and donations have increased handsomely in the past few years, Simon said, but that's because people are worried about civil liberties in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

On the Internet, the ACLU home page had two news items on Schiavo on Friday next to a section telling people how to donate. But Simon said the ACLU has received only one recognizable Schiavo response.

"I'm holding in my hand an e-mail we got from somebody Wednesday saying, "I'd like to send a small thank you check to the ACLU of Florida for its work on the Schiavo case,"' Simon said. "I guess a check is on its way. I have no idea of the amount."

For the past few weeks, the Family Research Council, a "Christian-based, nonprofit organization working on policy related to profamily issues," has focused heavily on Schiavo in daily e-mail and Web site news alerts, spokeswoman Amber Hildebrand said. All three of Friday's alerts concerned Schiavo.

"We want people to understand ... she is not brain dead," Hildebrand said from the organization's Washington, D.C., office. "She is on a feeding tube, and that's not life support."

News alerts from the council contain information where people can donate, as does the Web site, though monetary solicitations are not tied directly to Schiavo news, as they are on some Web sites.

The research council has filed "friend of the court" briefs in the Schiavo case. Hildebrand said donor information is usually kept private, and she didn't know if donations have jumped with all the Schiavo publicity.

But if anyone sent in a check and specified it was for the Schiavo fight, she said, "I'd said please visit Terrisfight.org. We are not eager to benefit from this."

Terrisfight.org is the Web site for the Terri Schindler-Schiavo Foundation, a nonprofit Florida corporation started in 2002 by the Schindler family. According to documents filed with the state, the foundation raises money to: help prevent her death, underwrite medical and neurological exams related to rehabilitation and care, increase public awareness of guardianship, marital infidelity and end-of-life laws and to lobby for greater parental rights under guardianship law.

Bob Schindler is president, Mary Schindler is secretary; Bobby Schindler Jr. is treasurer, and Suzanne Carr, Schiavo's sister, is listed as director, though she got married earlier this month and is now Suzanne Vitadamo. In 2003, none drew a salary.

The foundation's Web site includes videos of Terri, taken during court-ordered evaluations. According to the Web site, they show her smiling at her mother, tracking a balloon, responding to music and opening her eyes on command. These are the images that helped sway Florida and national lawmakers to pass laws designed to reinsert her feeding tube.

The Web site includes news updates and pleas for readers to write their lawmakers. It also asks for donations because the foundation "depends on the generosity of others to offset some of the expenses associated with protecting Terri."

People can donate by credit card or check.

In Florida, fundraising organizations are required to register with the state and list their income and expenses. The Terri Schindler-Schiavo Foundation filed its first paperwork in February, after paying a $1,000 fine for failing to register on time.

The latest information comes from calendar year 2003, when the foundation brought in $38,567 in donations and $2,968 from a golf tournament, the documents said. Expenses were $11,800 for legal fees, $3,189 for travel, $2,719 for Web site expenses and smaller amounts for supplies, telephones, postage, printing and equipment rental. At the end of the year $13,497 was left on hand.

The next report is due in February 2006 and will cover expenses and income from 2004. Because the foundation has not secured tax exempt status, the federal government has no public information about its income, expenses or officer salaries.

Lately, the Franciscan Brothers of Peace, based in Minnesota, have been raising money for the Schindlers' foundation. Because the Brothers are a religious order, people can donate, then claim a tax deduction, knowing the Brothers will forward the money to the foundation.

Every day or so, the brothers also collect foundation mail that comes into a Qwik Pack & Ship on St. Petersburg Beach, said Brother Paul O'Donnell. That's where the foundation Web site directs donors to send their checks.

O'Donnell said he didn't know how many letters the foundation receives, nor how many contained checks or simple expressions of support.

Bernadette Ledger, a Qwik Pack worker, said "a lot" of letters are coming every day, and the volume has been increasing. "That's all we're allowed to say."

The foundation is the first and third listing on Yahoo's search engine when people type in "Help Terri Schiavo." No. 2 is BlogsforTerri, a coalition of 150 Web bloggers who say they are raising money for newspaper ads.

No. 5 is RightMarch.com, which recently sent protesters and lobbyists to Tallahassee. A solicitation letter is signed by President William Green and antiabortion activist Randall Terry, who has worked closely with the Schindlers to drum up support. Terry's Society for Truth and Justice also is raising money for the fight on its Web site.

Green could not be reached for comment, and in a brief interview Friday, Terry said he didn't know how much money had come in or what it had been spent on.

Troy Newman, president of OperationRescue.org, said his organization's Web site, "has just been blossoming with e-mails and letters of concern" about Schiavo. "We are getting several hundred e-mails every day."

The Web site is covered with news about Schiavo, including a link to a WorldNetDaily.com story in which attorney Barbara Weller says she was in the hospice room when Schiavo "yelled out she wants to live when told her life-sustaining feeding tube was about to be removed."

Schiavo-related donations paid for motel rooms and other travel costs for trips to Tallahassee, Newman said, but nothing more. His group joined a loose coalition of 25 organizations called Voice for Terri, which ceased fundraising Friday because "all our options are gone. At this time we are praying and fasting," Newman said.

Any leftover money will be donated to the Schindlers, he said.

Outside the Woodside Hospice, where hundreds gathered to pray Friday, protesters made posters on a card table. In the center sat a Swiss Miss box that once held packets of hot chocolate mix. A sign on the box read simply "Donations," though nobody around the table seemed to know exactly what the money would go toward.

Cindy Ragsdale, a 41-year-old waiter from Alabama, didn't care. She had spent all but $2 of her tip money to drive to Pinellas Park and wait along with the others as Schiavo slips away. The Swiss Miss box seemed like a good destination for the $2, she said. "I hope this buys her more time."

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