Attorney General Ellison files enforcement action against fundraiser who did not properly spend money raised in Philando Castile’s name
Pamela Fergus raised $200K to relieve student lunch debt in Saint Paul schools, can only account for properly spending $80K
AG’s office strongly encourages organizations raising funds by any means for any cause, including social justice, to know and comply with all fundraising rules
June 3, 2021 (SAINT PAUL) — Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced at a press conference today that his office has filed an enforcement action against Pamela Fergus, a/k/a “Philando Feeds the Children,” who his office alleges did not properly spend all the money she raised in the name of Philando Castile. In its filing today, Attorney General Ellison’s office showed that of approximately $200,000 that Ms. Fergus raised to relieve student lunch debt for Saint Paul Public School Students — which began as a one-semester, in-class service project for an undergraduate class she taught — only about $80,000 was donated to Saint Paul Public Schools for the purpose of relieving student lunch debt, leaving approximately $120,000 unaccounted for.
The Attorney General’s office is the chief regulator of charities in Minnesota. Under Minnesota law, charities are required to register with the Attorney General’s office and to spend all funds they raise exclusively for their charitable purpose, after justifiable administrative expenses. After Ms. Fergus rebuffed numerous attempts to work constructively with the Attorney General’s office to account for the $120,000 that remains unaccounted for, the office filed its enforcement action today as a last resort.
“Minnesotans are generous people with good intentions: whether they’re raising money for a good cause or donating to a good cause, they just want others to be able to live with the same dignity and respect that they want for themselves,” Attorney General Ellison said. “Unfortunately, sometimes fundraisers take advantage of generous Minnesotans’ good intentions and do not spend or properly account for the money they raise for ostensibly charitable purposes. In this instance, someone who raised money in the name of Philando Castile, supposedly to relieve student lunch debt for school children in Saint Paul to honor Mr. Castile, is unable or unwilling to account properly for all the money she raised.
“Philando Castile cared deeply about the children he served, and the children loved him back. Raising money supposedly to serve those children, then not doing so, is an insult to Philando’s legacy and all who loved him. After attempting for more than a year to work with Ms. Fergus to account for the missing money but being continually rebuffed, my office filed this enforcement action today as a last resort. We never want to have to get to this point, but as the chief regulator of charities in Minnesota, I will use all the tools at my disposal to ensure that dollars raised for charitable purposes go only to those purposes — because that money belongs to the public, not to the people who raise it,” Attorney General Ellison added.
“When you run a campaign or event to honor or support a charity or cause you are passionate about, please direct those funds in the appropriate manner,” Valerie Castile, the mother of Philando Castile, said. “Donors in their generosity expect your honesty and commitment.”
Charitable fundraisers’ responsibilities and obligations under the law
“Charitable” donations can be for a wide variety of causes, including social services, education, the public interest, or the arts. A fundraiser does not have to be a 501(c)(3), a nonprofit, or other organization to be subject to charitable giving laws. In fact, any person raising money in Minnesota for a charitable purpose can be a “charity” under the law.
Under Minnesota law, those who raise money for a charitable purpose have important duties. For example, they cannot be misleading or deceptive about how funds will be used, must use the money for the exact purpose that donors intended, and must have procedures in place to make sure the money is used properly. In addition, those who raise more than $25,000 or meet some other conditions must register and file specific paperwork with the Attorney General’s office.
“Minnesota has long been a national leader in charitable giving. In recent years, Minnesota has also become a national epicenter of activism and fundraising for social and racial justice — and with the ease and speed of raising money online, more money is flowing into charitable causes in Minnesota than ever before,” Attorney General Ellison continued.
“This is a good thing — and it’s why it’s more important than ever that fundraisers know their responsibilities under the law to report and account for the money they raise and spend. These laws and regulations protect everyone: fundraisers, donors, and the public that is supposed to benefit from charitable donations. The Charities Division of my office is here to help: we’re ready, willing, and available to educate everyone raising money for good causes in Minnesota about their responsibilities,” Attorney General Ellison concluded.
Tips for fundraisers
The Attorney General’s office provides tips for fundraisers in its free publication, “You Might Be a ‘Charity’—Yes, You! What Individuals Need to Know When Raising Money for a Charitable Cause.” Fundraisers with questions of any kind can contact the Attorney General’s office at (651) 296-3353 (Metro area) or 800-657-3787 (Greater Minnesota), or search for the help they need on the “Charities” pulldown menu on the front page of the Attorney General’s website.
Tips for donors
The Attorney General’s office provides tips to donors to charitable causes on its website and in its free publication, “Don’t Just Follow the Crowd on ‘Crowdfunding’ Websites.”
Background on “Philando Feeds the Children”
Philando Castile was a Saint Paul Public Schools food-service worker who was killed by a St. Anthony police officer on July 6, 2016. In the fall of 2017, Ms. Fergus chose for the undergraduate class that she taught the project of raising money in Philando Castile’s name for the purpose of relieving student lunch debt in Saint Paul Public Schools, and assigned her students to it. Dubbed “Philando Feeds the Children,” the project was originally to conclude at the end of that semester, as Ms. Fergus represented to Mr. Castile’s mother Valerie Castile and others.
Ms. Fergus set up an online fundraising webpage, where she listed herself as the organizer and wrote regular updates for donors. Ms. Fergus set up the fundraiser so that all donations were funneled into her personal checking account. “Philando Feeds the Children” gained national media attention and quickly surpassed its original goal of raising $5,000. Ms. Fergus transferred a total of $80,036 of “Philando Feeds the Children” donations to St. Paul Public Schools to help relieve student lunch debts. After the fall 2017 semester ended, Ms. Fergus kept the fundraising webpage active, and charitable funds continued to flow into her personal checking account.
At least $200,774 in charitable funds went into Ms. Fergus’s personal checking account between September 2017 and May 2018, leaving $120,738 in missing charitable funds. In 2020, after the Attorney General issued a Civil Investigative Demand about the fundraiser, Ms. Fergus invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refused to provide any evidence as to what happened to the missing money.
The Attorney General’s complaint against Ms. Fergus charges her with four counts: (1) breach of charitable trust, (2) deceptive solicitation of charitable contributions, (3) failure to keep proper records as a soliciting charity, and (4) failure to register with the Attorney General’s office as a soliciting charity. The Attorney General’s complaint seeks, among other relief, restitution from Ms. Fergus to ensure that charitable funds are used as donors intended.
A copy of the enforcement action is available on Attorney General Ellison’s website. A recording of today’s press conference is available on Zoom.