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Charity's ads draw attention of law

By ADAM C. SMITH

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 9, 2000


He appears every holiday season in newspaper ads and direct mailings: the grizzled, old man hunched over food. He's accompanied by a pitch that a mere $15.70 will serve 10 meals to the homeless and hungry.

That ad campaign has brought the affiliated Tampa City Mission and St. Petersburg City Mission more than $1.2-million in donations from Tampa Bay residents during the past two years. But despite budgets that dwarf other homeless-aid groups, the missions have provided only modest assistance to the needy.

Now the California-based group in charge of those missions is under fire in Illinois for an identical fundraising campaign there. Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan sued City Mission Network International Tuesday, accusing it of fraudulent fundraising tactics on behalf of the recently opened Chicago City Mission.

The non-profit, tax-exempt City Mission Network International owns a dozen satellite missions in North America, including Tampa and St. Petersburg. Its holiday campaign in Chicago raised $205,000, but it reported spending $300,000 on fundraising and only $461 on food. City Mission Network International subsidizes the differences between fundraising money and spending.

"(City Mission Network) knowingly misled potential contributors into believing that their contributions would go toward feeding a specific number of Chicago homeless and . . . failed to disclose the true use" for the money donations, the suit says.

It seeks, among other things, an injunction against any further fundraising, an order that the $205,000 raised in Chicago be directed to another "bona fide" homeless charity, and that City Mission Network pay another $205,000 in punitive damages.

City Mission Network issued a brief statement Wednesday, saying it disagreed with the attorney general and would respond appropriately. Money raised for the mission, it said, is used to "provide meals and life-changing services to the hungry and homeless."

The Florida Attorney General's office has no pending complaints against the Tampa and St. Petersburg missions, but news of the Illinois suit piqued the interest of Assistant Attorney General Todd Grandy in Tampa. "Even without a consumer complaint, we certainly have a concern about the representations being made, and if those representations are not accurate, we have a serious concern," Grandy said.

St. Petersburg City Mission, beset with zoning problems for more than two years, has maintained its aggressive fundraising campaign despite having no homeless shelter or soup kitchen. Instead, it delivers food baskets and occasionally serves lunches at churches. It operates out of a small office on Fifth Avenue North off 34th Street. The Tampa mission has a shelter with about 20 beds and serves food at a church at 1002 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. E.

Last year, the Tampa City Mission reported raising $285,000 and spending $578,000, including $291,000 on fundraising. The St. Petersburg mission reported raising $399,000 and spending $665,000, including $250,000 on fundraising.

But verifying where the mission contributions actually go is difficult because, as religious organizations, their disclosure requirements are limited, said Floyd Perkins, assistant attorney general in Illinois. No government agency eagerly pursues religious groups, he said, but the mission ads in Chicago were hard to ignore because they were so specific.

"Our only concern is to protect the city from getting plundered," Perkins said. "People thought they were helping feed the homeless. They didn't think they were helping to build a new mission or a database for potential donors."

City Mission Network International for 10 years was a member of the the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, a respected organization that requires strict financial accountability standards. Last fall, however, City Mission Network dropped out of the council because it no longer could meet its accountability standards, said Evangelical Council president Paul Nelson.

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