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Aurora theater shooting victims' families ask state officials to investigate donation fund

Update below: Families representing eleven of the twelve people who died in the Aurora theater shooting have asked Colorado's attorney general and secretary of state to investigate Community First Foundation and its website, GivingFirst.org, which collected more than $5 million in donations to the Aurora Victim Relief Fund. The letter says the organization used names and photos of deceased victims to solicit donations without permission.

Update, October 9, 4:50 p.m.: The Community First Foundation has issued a statement in which it pledges to engage an independent auditor to audit the Aurora Victim Relief Fund after the money has been disbursed. Here's the statement:

Community First Foundation is honored to serve our community and the victims of the Aurora theatre shooting by faithfully processing money donated to the Aurora Victim Relief Fund. All money collected, either online or via check/money order, is and will continue to go directly into the Aurora Victim Relief Fund.

Community First Foundation realizes that every donation is a gift. We are obligated to honor the intentions of our donors by delivering each gift to the recipient identified by the donor. When we cannot meet the donor's expectation, we return the money to the donor.

Of the $5.4 million raised by the Aurora Victim Relief Fund, $100,000 was distributed in the form of matching grants to COVA, Aurora Mental Health and eight other nonprofits working with victims. The donors who contributed this $100,000 asked us to use their donations in this way to encourage others to give. An additional $405,000 has been distributed from the Aurora Victim Relief Fund to the victims in the form of cash assistance. The remaining funds will be distributed by Special Master Kenneth Feinberg.

Feinberg is an expert specializing in compensation disbursement. He has been retained by White House administrations to run the 9/11 fund and BP Oil Spill settlement. He handled the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund at Virginia Tech University and was recently hired by Penn State University to settle personal injury claims related to former Coach Jerry Sandusky.

Community First Foundation realizes our transparency maintains faith - not only in the giving process - but also among the organizations and individuals who are the recipients of that generosity. To that end, the board of directors of the Community First Foundation is engaging an independent auditor to conduct an audit of the Aurora Victim Relief Fund. This development has previously been announced to our donors, to the news media and to the victims. This audit will cover all transactions and will commence upon the distribution of the fund.

Community First Foundation is honored to participate in this endeavor to help our community heal from the painful events of July 20th. We look forward to cooperating with the Fund distribution process.

For additional information regarding this matter, please refer to the following statement from the Governor's Office:

"Community First Foundation, like so many other organizations and individuals, stepped up at a time when our community was in crisis. Community First Foundation agreed to handle the Aurora Victim Relief Fund without taking any fees or reimbursement for their costs. We have complete confidence in the integrity of the organization and how it has handled the fund. Many victims and their families have already benefited from the foundation's efforts and even more will benefit in the coming weeks."

Also, the Colorado attorney general's office has confirmed that it received the letter from the victims' families but cannot confirm or deny that an investigation is underway.

Continue reading for the original post, which includes the families' letter.

 

Original post, October 9, 3:04 p.m.: Families representing eleven of the twelve people who died in the Aurora theater shooting have asked Colorado's attorney general and secretary of state to investigate Community First Foundation and its website, GivingFirst.org, which collected more than $5 million in donations to the Aurora Victim Relief Fund. The letter says the organization used names and photos of deceased victims to solicit donations without permission.

The families' letter to the officials, which is on view below, also requests an audit to figure out whether money collected for the Aurora Victim Relief Fund was commingled with the nonprofit Community First Foundation's general fund, as victims' families fear. They've repeatedly expressed frustration with the way the money has been disbursed -- or not disbursed -- and say victims have been ignored and misled throughout the process.

Tom Teves, whose son Alex was killed in the attack, says state authorities and the leaders of the Community First Foundation have been "vindictive" ever since the victims raised concerns. "It's always been, 'We're Big Brother, we know better than you, we're going to have a socialist solution to this,'" Teves says. "You shouldn't have to bury your son and then ignore the two children you still have because you're involved in fighting bureaucrats who are paid with your taxes and nonprofits who are paid with your donations."

The letter cites the Colorado Charitable Solicitations Act, a state law that aims, in part, to stop fraudulent charities. It prohibits using the "name or symbol of another person" to solicit donations without written authorization. It also defines "charitable fraud" -- a class 5 felony -- as lying about how donations will be used or communicating that a relationship between the solicitor and a cause exists when it does not.

Continue reading for more on the letter sent by victims' families.   The letter says the Community First Foundation implied that donations to the Aurora Victim Relief Fund would "provide direct assistance" to the victims' families but that the first disbursement of money went to ten area nonprofits instead.

The families of deceased victims speak at a press conference on August 28, 2012.
The families of deceased victims speak at a press conference on August 28, 2012.

When a family member of a victim expressed concern that the foundation's website was soliciting donations under the line "Support Victims of the Aurora Shooting" -- "a clear indication that they are working in conjunction with approval of families and victims, when no such approval exists," the letter says -- the website was changed to read, "Support Aurora Victim Relief Efforts," according to the letter.

"These charities have disbursed a portion of the funds collected," the letter says. "The families do not know what amounts were disbursed or to which nonprofits they were sent. They additionally do not know if these funds were used consistent with the purposes for which contributors intended. In an attempt to mitigate further victimization of those affected by this tragedy, they seek your assistance and intervention."

Westword contacted the Community First Foundation and was sent this statement: "We are reviewing the letter sent by the victims. We look forward to answering questions and cooperating with the process. ... All money collected, either online or via check/money order, is and will continue to go directly into the Aurora Victim Relief Fund."

We've also left a message with the attorney general's office. As for the secretary of state, the official word thus far is that the office is looking into it.

The Aurora Victim Relief Fund will accept donations through GivingFirst.org until October 15. Donations will be continue to be accepted until November 15, but only by checks mailed to Governor John Hickenlooper's office. Distribution of the funds is set to begin on November 16 with the help of Ken Feinberg, the expert "special master" brought in to help determine how they money should be given out. Feinberg is scheduled to meet with Aurora victims this week on Thursday evening and Friday morning "to gather input about the appropriate protocols to disperse funds to victims and their families," according to a press release from Hickenlooper's office.

Teves is frustrated that donations to the fund will be cut off. "They continue to speak about the long-term needs of the injured, but then they shut down the fund. How does that make any sense?" he asks.

As for the Community First Foundation, it sent the following statement to Westword this morning, before we got word about the victims' families' letter:

Community First Foundation is dedicated to helping the victims of the Aurora theater shooting as quickly as possible. With community support, the Aurora Victim Relief Fund has raised $5.4 million. Many of the donations to the Aurora Victim Relief Fund have come in the form of written checks. As is natural in crisis-specific funds, donations are tapering off with the passing of time.

As you are likely aware, the opportunity to give money to the Aurora Victim Relief Fund is being extended for those who wish to write checks and submit them to the Governor's Office through November 15, 2012. All money collected, either online or via check/money order, is and will continue to go into the Aurora Victim Relief Fund.

Community First Foundation is honored to have been asked to serve our community by faithfully processing money donated to the Aurora Victim Relief Fund.

Continue to read the letter sent by the families.  

Letter to Attorney General From Aurora Victims

For more, read our Aurora Theater Shooting archive.

Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at melanie.asmar@westword.com

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