Edison donations spent in secret on dinners, Cadillac
Photo: Video by fox4now.com
FORT MYERS - Edison State College's scandals cost taxpayers almost $1 million to fire former president Dr. Ken Walker and find and rehire his replacement.
But there are some things the college spent money on that you'll never know about.
Fox 4 crunched the numbers and found taxpayers paid $540,000 to pay Walker, who was fired, not to sue; $80,000 to hire a search firm to find his replacement; $350,000 to hire president Jeff Allbritten.
Between airfare, hotels and private rental cars for the other candidates taxpayers shelled out nearly $2900 - bringing the total to $972,880.
And that's just what taxpayers spent money on.
Donations spent in secret
You may have been asked to donate money to Edison. And unless you specified exactly where you wanted it to go you probably thought that money was going to help kids get an education.
But a Fox 4 investigation found some unspecified donations went towards things other than scholarships.
Business major Jamie Hale works during the day to pay for classes at night.
"I love it here at Edison," said Hale. "I think it's a great school."
A school Hale doesn't want to leave but feels she has no other choice. She's been turned down for a scholarship for the past three years and was recently offered money to attend another school.
"Money is very tight," said Hale. "And any scholarship or any financial aid that could help me out is definitely beneficial."
As it turns out, money that could be going to students like Hale, in the form of unspecified donations to the college, have been used to pay for sit down meals for top officials.
"I would like everybody to do one dinner and then if you can do one lunch," said board member Ann Berlam at the June 26 board meeting. "If not, some of us who are retired can do a couple lunches."
In an audio recording, the trustees discuss taking the then three presidential candidates out to lunch and dinner - on the dime of donors.
"Can we take them to dinner anywhere we want to?," asked board member Marjorie Starnes-Billoti. "Or how does that work?"
"Yeah," responded Berlam.
"Great," said Starnes-Billoti.
Each trustee was given authority to take the candidates anywhere they wanted. And guess what? You'll never know where they went or how much money was spent.
Despite calls for transparency, it's against Florida law for Edison to release how private donations are spent. The statute says money donated and "any information related to the expenditure of funds...shall be confidential and exempt" from public record laws.
That is how Fox 4 found out about spending on the dinners. The college denied our public records request saying it was exempt because it was paid for with money from the Edison Foundation.
The Foundation, a private non-profit, raises money for things like scholarships and financial aid. The fact that the public can't know how they spent those donated dollars angers former trustee and longtime donor Dr. David Klein.
Klein has given the college more than $250,000 and his name is on the bell tower of the Charlotte campus.
"People have a right to know where their money is going," said Klein.
Donations pay for Walker's Cadillac
Back in January, Fox 4 wanted to know who paid for former president Walker's Cadillac Escalade. Edison told us they couldn't give us that information because it came from the Edison Foundation.
The Web site says their mission is to "advance the education and welfare of the institution" and the community.
"This is a public entity, taxpayer money, donated money," said Klein, talking about the college. "It's not some secret society somewhere. It's not Skull and Bones at Yale."
Donors, like Klein, who did not specify where they wanted their money to go - checking off a box labeled "area of greatest need" - helped foot the bill for Walker's $60,000 Cadillac and dinners for the trustees.
"Did you have any idea when you said 'use it for the area of greatest need,' that your money would be going for some of these things?," asked Fox 4 reporter Matt Grant.
"No I imagined it was just for scholarships," said Klein. "That would make me hesitant to want to donate any more money."
Money the Foundation needs.
Fox 4 checked the foundation's recent tax returns. According to their 990 tax return, between 2010-2011, the Foundation took in $2.6 million but spent $3.4 million - leaving them $940,246 in the red.
Money Klein says should have only been spent on education.
"The money's not just sitting there to be used for any purpose," said Klein. "It has to be for a specific purpose which is educating students who otherwise can't afford to go to college."
Dinners, Cadillac - what else?
While we don't know what else the college is spending donation dollars on, we do know Edison laid off a slew of faculty and administrators recently. They also shut down their eStudio lab in June due to a lack of funding.
It was a place where students struggling could get extra help. Donations could have kept it open.
But some donors think the Foundation's books should stay closed.
"I earmark" my donations, said Robert "Bucky" McQueen, who donated $50,000 to the college. He says the public doesn't have a right to know how private donations are spent.
"If it's private money I don't think they have an obligation to release it," said McQueen.
"Why?," asked Fox 4 reporter Matt Grant.
"Because it's private money," said McQueen. "It's not public money."
Money Hale wishes could have helped her. She plans to transfer out next year.
"I don't feel entitled to that money," said Hale. "But I feel like the money could be used towards the students' benefit."
Board member Brian Chapman Jr. says he spent a "very modest" amount on his dinner. Board member Julia Perry says she paid out of pocket because she didn't want donations spent on the dinner.
A spokeswoman for Edison released a statement saying donors trust that they will be good stewards of their gifts and current laws allow the Foundation to respect and protect their wish for privacy.
The Edison State College Foundation seeks and gratefully accepts donations in support of the college’s mission without regard to the amount.
Donors can choose to support specific initiatives or if unspecified, the Foundation uses those funds to continue its mission to support the College’s students, faculty and staff through scholarships, endowments, program support, events and planned gifts.
We may demonstrate our gratitude for gift(s) by listing contributors with other supporters in our publications, on donor recognition displays and by thanking them at events but we are always willing to make their contributions anonymous if they request that we do so. However, we do not publish or announce specific gift amounts without the expressed permission of our donors.
Further, in this age of identity theft, we feel it is important to protect our donors’ personal data, including contact and payment/financial information (credit card, banking, etc.) In addition, we do not sell or trade our donor records to/with other institutions.
People donate to the Edison State College Foundation to support the college and its students. They do so trusting that we will be good stewards of their gifts and their giving records. Current statutes allow the Foundation to respect and protect their wish for privacy.