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Lawmaker wants Edison donation spending made public

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Photo: Video by fox4now.com

Lawmaker wants Edison donation spending made public

By Matt Grant. CREATED Sep 18, 2012 - UPDATED: Sep 18, 2012

FORT MYERS, Fla. - A state lawmaker is promising to take action after a Fox 4 investigation discovered Edison State College is spending your donated money in secret - and not all of it is going to students.

When you donate money to Edison, and other colleges, unless you specify exactly how you want your money spent, the college's foundation can spent it anyway they want and, by law, you'll never know how they're spending your donations.

After three years of being turned down for scholarships at Edison, Jamie Hale is transferring next year because she can't afford it anymore.

"Money is very tight," said Hale. "And any scholarship or any financial aid that could help me out is definitely beneficial."

A Fox 4 investigation discovered college donations that could have helped Hale instead went towards other things - like a $60,000 Cadillac Escalade for fired president Ken Walker and sit down meals for top officials.

In May, eight board members discussed taking the presidential candidates out for sit down dinners individually anywhere they wanted.

"I would like everybody to do one dinner and then if you can do one lunch," said board member Ann Berlam. "If not, some of us who are retired can do a couple lunches."

"Can we take them to dinner anywhere we want to or how does that work?," asked board member Marjorie Starnes-Bilotti.

"Yeah," said Berlam.

"Great," said Starnes-Bilotti.

Those meals were paid for by donors like Dr. David Klein who has given more than $270,000 to Edison and who's name is on the bell tower on the Charlotte Campus - the "Klein Tower."

Klein says he never thought to specify how he wanted his money spent and just checked off a box marked "area of greatest need."

"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. "I'm sure anybody looking to donate money now is probably thinking well gee another black eye for Edison."

Under Florida law, you're not entitled to know where the trustees went to dinner or how much money was spent. That's because the state considers private donations confidential and exempt from public scrutiny.

"They surely can't even tell you what money was spent where?," said Klein. "That doesn't seem right. It just doesn't seem right. This is a public entity, taxpayer money, donated money. It's not some secret society somewhere."

Klein wants to see the law changed. So we showed his interview to State Rep. Matt Caldwell (R-Lehigh Acres).

"Certainly hearing a donor of that substantial weight saying he has concerns gives me pause," said Caldwell. "And makes me want to reflect on how we've got it organized as of today."

Caldwell's no stranger to Edison. He helped change the law making college president's reviews public after our investigations into the college.

As for the luxury Cadillac Walker got, paid for with unspecified donor dollars, Caldwell says that's hard to justify.

"I think everyone would have a very difficult time justifying that," said Caldwell.

"Given that do you think any laws need to change?," asked Grant.

"I definitely want to take a look at it," said Caldwell. "I personally, like I said, don't have a problem with the disclosure of expenditures."

The college says donors trust the way they handle their money and expect privacy. But Caldwell says even though it's private money it's still a public college.

"So you think the books should be open?," asked Grant.

"I don't see any reason why you would not want them to be open," said Caldwell.

That's something Klein wants as well. Unless something changes, one of the college's biggest donors says he's hesitant to donate any more money.

"I would have hoped after the Cadillac and Dr. Walker's departure this would have stopped," said Klein. "Say, 'We're going to stop and do it by the numbers. We're going to be so clean we're going to squeak.'"

Caldwell says he supports releasing donor names on top of where the money is being spent. Under the current law, we'll never know what else the college is spending donations on - something Caldwell promises to look into during the next legislative session.

Matt Grant
mgrant@fox4now.com