Couple Charged in Sandy Charity Probe
The couple at the center of the Hurricane Sandy Relief Foundation are being sued by the New Jersey Attorney General's Office and the Division of Consumer Affairs, charged with pocketing most of $631,000 in donations collected from about 2,000 people.
John Sandberg and Christina Terracino of Sparta are accused of misrepresenting their enterprise as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt group, claiming to send all donations toward "food, clothing, supplies, aid in rescue and cleanup efforts, and the future rebuilding of communities and lives destroyed by Hurricane Sandy."
They're charged with violations of the state's Charitable Registration and Investigation Act, charities regulations, the Consumer Fraud Act and the Nonprofit Corporation Act. Prosecutors are seeking a shutdown of their website, a halt to solicitations, repayment of all funds and full civil penalties.
Every solicitation while HSRF is not registered, or accomplished deceptively, is considered a separate violation, according to the Attorney General's office. The first violation is punishable by a $10,000 fine and every successive one carries a $20,000 fine.
In the suit filed in Bergen County, prosecutors contend that more than $13,000 went to Sandberg's personal accounts, and additional diversions into Terracino's personal account paid credit card bills totalling nearly $8,000.
Investigators claim that another $4,00 was paid to Apple's Online Store, the Vivo Tapas Lounge in Newark and other restaurants, two grocery stores, Christmas Tree Shops and a heating oil firm that delivered to the house they share.
They also charge that more than $3,000 from HSRF's PayPal account was transferred to "Jezel Yepez," which they believe is an alias for Anthony Yepez, who the couple listed as a volunteer in their organization. The suit alleges that they included no mention of wages in their February application to register as a charity with DCA, and under-reported the amount that had been raised by $39,000.
Meanwhile, say investigators, they gave out gift cards totalling about $1,650 - less than one percent of the donations.
DCA Acting Director Eric Kanefsky said that his department became aware of the activity in late December and met with HSRF operators at the Division office in Newark. "After a thorough investigation revealed multiple and ongoing violations of state law, we are now taking action to ensure that all of the money donated is used properly, in a manner consistent with the representations made to the public."
Prosecutors also charge that the couple deliberately misled prospective donors with allusions to the legitimate Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund.
They allege that the HSRF web page includes a portal called "Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund," carrying the statement that "Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund donations go towards cleanup efforts, and the future rebuilding of communities and lives destroyed by Hurricane Sandy" and links to a news article delineating that group's winter clothing donation event with which HSRF wasn't involved.
The "Donations" page, say authorities, includes a PayPal link for online contributions that an unsuspecting donor would believe to be destined for the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund.
The suit goes on to allege that corporate sponsors listed on the HSRF page, including Hanes Brands and CSX Corporation, had no idea they were listed there and had not authorized use of their brandings. DCA officials say that Hanes executives were unsuccessful in contacting HSRF, and that CSX officials ordered them to remove their logo or risk a copyright-infringement suit.
Anyone interested in checking out a charitable group's standing with the state can do so at http://www.njconsumeraffairs.gov/charity/chardir.htm or by calling 973-504-6215 during normal business hours.