Attorney General Ellison secures $120K repayment from fundraiser who did not properly spend funds raised in Philando Castile’s name
In settlement of AG’s June 2021 lawsuit, Pamela Fergus ordered to pay back all funds unaccounted for; permanently banned from managing charitable money
March 28, 2022 (SAINT PAUL) — Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced today his office has reached a settlement agreement that requires Pamela Fergus — the organizer of an online charitable fundraiser called “Philando Feeds the Children”— to pay back $120,000 in charitable funds that were supposed to be used to pay down local students’ lunch debts, but that the Attorney General’s office alleged she instead put in her own pockets. The agreement, filed today in Ramsey County District Court, also permanently bans Fergus from handling charitable funds.
Per the terms of the consent judgment, Ms. Fergus will pay back the $120,000 charitable funds she collected to the Attorney General’s Office, who will distribute it to Saint Paul Public Schools for the restricted purpose of paying off lunch debts of children in need — the purpose for which Minnesotans donated the funds in the first place.
“This settlement helps to ensure that the money donors gave in Philando’s name will go back to where it was intended — to help Saint Paul kids who struggle to pay for school lunches,” Attorney General Ellison said. “Philando Castile cared deeply about the children he served, and the children loved him back. Failing to use every dollar raised to help those children was an insult to Philando’s legacy and all who loved him. This settlement helps right that wrong by continuing Philando’s commitment to serving students in need and ensures that the powerful impact he had during his life will continue to live as his legacy to the children and all of us.”
"You should put that money where it’s supposed to go," said Valerie Castile, mother of Philando Castile. "These things are not for your personal gain. It’s not right."
In June 2021, the Charities Division of the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office sued Fergus for failing to properly spend all the money she raised in the name of Philando Castile. The lawsuit alleged 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 settlement requires Fergus to pay back that $120,000 and prohibits her from being in charge of charitable money ever again. The terms require Ms. Fergus to make smaller monthly payments in the short term, then pay the balance in a lump sum within two years when she gains access to her retirement funds.
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 mislead or deceive donors 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.”
If you believe someone may be defrauding the public through a GoFundMe campaign or other fundraiser or misusing charitable donations, Attorney General Ellison’s Office would like to hear from you. Please fill out a Charities/Nonprofit Complaint Form or contact the AGO as follows:
Office of Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison
445 Minnesota Street, Suite 1400
St. Paul, MN 55101
(651) 296-3353 (Metro area)
(800) 657-3787 (Greater Minnesota)
(800) 627-3529 (Minnesota Relay)