Charity accused of exploiting fallen firefighters, fire victims
Between 2013 and 2016, the organization donated only a half-penny to two cents of every dollar that was meant for families of fallen firefighters
By Erika Pesantes
POMPANO BEACH, Fla. — A Pompano Beach charity that collected more than $43 million for breast cancer research, families of fallen firefighters and fire victims, kept most of the money, authorities say.
The Florida Attorney General's Office is seeking to shut down the Community Charity Advancement, Inc., which did business as Breast Cancer Research and Support Fund, U.S. Volunteer Firefighters Association, United States Firefighter Association and variations of that name.
Between 2013 and 2016, the organization donated only a half-penny to two cents of every dollar contributed for the charitable causes, a complaint filed in Broward County Circuit Court alleges.
Citing pending litigation, the Florida Attorney General's Office would not comment about the scope of the scam, the number of victims, how they were reached or where they were from. It also was not clear how the funds were used.
"It is absolutely abhorrent to exploit families of fallen firefighters and breast cancer patients to steal from generous Floridians. Charity scams prey on people's goodwill and discourage people from giving," Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said in a statement. "Furthermore, every dollar given to a deceptive charity is a dollar that does not go to those in need. This is an outrageous ploy and those responsible will be held accountable."
Peter Feaman, an attorney who represents the charity and its board members, said Wednesday that the state is "really off-base with this one and we're going to vigorously contest this."
The arm of the charity that assisted victims of fire recruited firefighters like David DiPierro, who works for Boca Raton Fire-Rescue, to help on its advisory board. On Wednesday, he said he had not heard from the organization in at least five years. He said he had donated his time years ago to offer guidance on how victims of fires could be assisted.
"It's really upsetting to me; I feel like I was scammed also for my time thinking I was doing a good thing, I was part of helping somebody, donating my time for charity," he said. "That's what I thought."
Former Pompano Beach Fire Chief Harry Small, who retired in 2013, said one of the charity's board members, Francis Ferrer, appeared genuine in his interest in helping fire victims. He said they met a handful of times, but assumed the charity was a bust when Ferrer didn't follow up.
"They were pretty upfront of the fact they needed some credible people on their board. I thought we were going to get more into it," Small said. "I had my hands full at the time running a fire department.
"I didn't think there was anything nefarious about it," the former fire chief said. "If they did something wrong, they have to pay for it -- absolutely. That's upsetting to me."
Despite board members' brief exchanges with legitimate fire-rescue personnel, both DiPierro and Small continue to be listed as advisory board members on the charity's website.
According to the complaint, the charity did not make a single cash donation to any organization that helped families of fallen firefighters or to fire departments during the past three years.
The defendants named in the lawsuit are: Francis Ferrer, of Lighthouse Point; Kerry Sharon, of Pompano Beach; Lindsey Novinich, of Deltona, Fla.; Carole Reich, of Coloma, Wis. and Bruce Rinney and John Robert Thomas, both of Owensboro, Ky.
Feaman, the attorney who represents the charity, said the charity actually raised $33 million between 2013 and 2016, of which $20 million went to good causes in the form of in-kind contributions and cash donations. However, he could not immediately offer a breakdown of how much came from donors.
"I'm saying $20 million is not misappropriation," Feaman said. "That's not a made-up number. That's reported to the federal government on their tax returns."
Community Charity Advancement is licensed as a charity in 36 states and is audited annually, he said.
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