Questions Raised By Some Titans Players' Charities
by Jennifer Kraus
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - You might think the Tennessee Titans are only about football.
Some of the team's biggest stars also are trying to make a difference off the field. They have set up their own charities to do good work in the community.
But a NewsChannel 5 investigation has uncovered questions about the money that's being raised for these charities and how it's being spent.
If you're a professional athlete these days, it seems the thing to do is have your own charity.
Former players like Vince Young and Keith Bulluck have had them -- and current players including Chris Johnson, Nate Washington Michael Griffin and Michael Roos have their own foundations too.
"I think it's just good to be able to give back as much as we can," Roos told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
The Titans' offensive tackle calls his the Michael Roos Foundation, and its mission is to offer encouragement, comfort, and support to children in need.
"They see a need out there and they're wanting to fund that need," said Bowling Green CPA Larry Howlett.
Howlett is a former IRS agent who specializes in non-profits. We asked him to help us analyze about a dozen non-profits run by Titans' players.
What we found is that some of these foundations have failed to register with the IRS or file the required annual tax forms, meaning there is little to no accountability as far as how much money is coming in and where that money is going.
We also discovered that, while the players put their names on these foundations, many are actually set up and run not by the players, but their sports and marketing agents.
"My agent started it when I got drafted," Roos said. "It's something he does for all of his clients, if they want."
Roos told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that his job is to show up at the foundation's main fundraiser ever year and get his football buddies to join him.
The annual event is a fishing a golf tournament held at a four-star resort in Idaho. Video from the event shows a host of professional athletes having a good time both on the greens and lake.
"It's a lot of fun. Fourth year this year," Roos shared.
But tax records show that in 2011, while the tournament took in $54,000, it spent more than $72,000, leaving the charity more than $18,000 in the hole.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Roos, "You raised $54,000, but you gave nothing to charity that year?"
Roos seemed surprised.
"I don't remember that," he answered. "I'm sure we have given some because we've given some every year."
But the group's tax filings confirm that nothing went to charity in 2011 -- while the foundation spent nearly $12,000 on travel for the football players, more than $9,000 to videotape the event, and $10,000 on marketing and promotions.
CPA Larry Howlett weighed in.
"They may feel they're promoting charity, but it comes across as otherwise," he said.
"What does it come across as?" we asked.
"Private benefit," he answered.
Since 2007, NewsChannel 5 Investigates found Roos' charity has raised more than $380,000 through events like the annual fishing and golf tournament, yet given away just over $100,000, or about 28%.
That's far below the 65% to 75% recommended by most charity watchdogs.
We tried to ask Roos about this, but as soon as the questions got tough, a Titans public relations guy stopped the interview.
NOTE: Roos' agent, Cameron Foster, told NewsChannel 5 Investigates, that: "I agree with your charity experts that our numbers fall short of the threshold a non-profit should strive for. We are not striving for the numbers we have seen in the past years. We are striving, and in time will ultimately receive, much better numbers."
He added, "In your report, I hope you acknowledge that Michael, and his wife, have donated $500,000 to higher education, and are an asset to their community in Nashville with their real estate development and philanthropic spirit." (According to published reports, Roos donated $500,000 to the Eastern Washington University Foundation towards the purchase and installation of red turf on the school's football field. Later, EWU renamed the field ‘Roos Field.')
Larry Howlett added, "It's not enough to just operate an activity. But, you need to be accountable and be transparent in everything that you do."
Then there's the 85th Foundation run by Titans wide receiver Nate Washington.
His website claims it's a non-profit that's been around since 2008.
The problem is that the 85th Foundation has never registered with the IRS and never filed any of the required tax forms -- so it's not a true charity.
"Anything given to them as a charitable donation could not be deductible," Howlett said.
We also discovered that, in 2011, the 85th Foundation hosted a celebrity casino night to raise money for Nashville Cares.
But Nashville Cares says it never received any money despite a pledge of $10,000 from Washington.
Washington denied our requests for an interview.
So did Titans running back Chris Johnson who we found has not one, but two foundations.
According to Howlett, "Anybody can claim to be a foundation. Just they're not a public charity."
When we began our investigation, we discovered that neither of Johnson's foundations was recognized by the IRS.
We found the Chris Johnson 28 Foundation had its tax-exempt status revoked by the IRS after it repeatedly failed to file its annual tax records.
Then last fall, Johnson started Team CJ2K.
While we found CJ offering fans autographed footballs and other memorabilia in exchange for donations, the foundation had never registered with the IRS until we started asking questions.
Johnson's agent told us it had been an oversight.
NOTE: According to Michael Lawson, a marketing agent for Chris Johnson, Team CJ2K raised $6,000 from the public in 2012 through a Facebook campaign in which CJ offered autographed footballs for $75. Johnson himself contributed another $5,000 which made for a total of $11,000. Lawson tells us 100 % of that money will go 11 elementary schools in Metro Nashville to purchase Kids College, an online literacy and math program for 3rd and 4th graders.
Lawson insisted that no Team CJ2K directors have or will receive compensation of any sort. "We anticipate 100% distribution of amounts collected."
The Chris Johnson 28 Foundation filed an annual report with the Secretary of State in Florida on May 1, 2013 that was electronically signed by Johnson, but has not filed tax returns with the IRS.
But our expert CPA, Larry Howlett, said that, when charities fail to follow IRS rules, the public is left in the dark.
"How do you track the money?" we asked him.
"You can't. You have no way to know, " Howlett replied.
And it's hard to track the money going to Titans' safety Michael Griffin's Sacks 4 Kids program.
The program recently got an $8,500 check from Papa John's Pizza and hosted a celebrity fundraiser in the Gulch.
But Sacks 4 Kids was set up by a marketing agent as a pass-through charity, meaning money raised for Griffin's program is filtered through two other groups, the Dreambuilders Foundation and Akin's P.A.T.H., Inc. Both are run by the agent. Those groups then send the money to a Nashville charity, Packed With Love, that feeds hungry children.
Under this arrangement, neither Sacks 4 Kids nor the Dreambuilders Foundation has to file tax returns with the IRS.
NOTE: "Sacks for Kids" is a program run by Icon Sports and Entertainment on behalf of Tennessee Titan Michael Griffin and Terrance Cody of the Baltimore Ravens. "Sacks for Kids" is part of the DreamBuilders Foundation. Ryan Altizer with Icon tells us that DreamBuilders Foundation is a d/b/a of Akins P.A.T.H., a foundation started by former NFL player Akin Ayodele. Altizer tells us that "Sacks for Kids" is relatively new but that the 2012 tax return for Akins P.A.T.H. will reflect that they raised $18,180 in Nashville and that $16,900 went to the charity "Packed with Love" that year. He acknowledged that Icon Sports gets a management fee for running the program. The Packed with Love charity tells NewsChannel 5 Investigates that, since last fall, it has received $19,000.
"There's no way to know if all of this (money) is being properly being accounted for," Howell said.
Griffin also turned down NewsChannel 5's requests for an interview.
While Howlett said that he believes the players' intentions are good, he added that they need to take more of an active role in their foundations to really make a difference.
"If they have a heart for these, then I encourage that they take that heart and enlarge it and do more with it," he said.
To research non-profits, check out the following websites:
Tennessee Division of Charitable Solicitations and Gaming
Giving Matters (part of the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee)