CINCINNATI -- As the holiday season gets under way, many people start thinking about being thankful, giving gifts and helping those in need. But police and the Hamilton County prosecutor want people to avoid one charity.
An organization called "The Greater Cincinnati Police Athletic Association" is soliciting donations in the Tri-State even though, the 9 On Your Side I-Team discovered, the state shut it down earlier this year. Now the group is under criminal investigation.
Many people have donated to the organization in the past. It funded the local "Shop with a Cop" program for 40 years, until it abruptly told local police the program would have to end after last December.
"It's unfortunate there are some people who were trying to do some nefarious things behind it, and I'm very certain they're going to be brought to justice," Cincinnati Police Chief Eliot Isaac said.
Isaac wants the public to beware of anyone asking for donations to The Greater Cincinnati Police Athletic Association.
"We don't call anyone and solicit money," he said. "We aren't affiliated with any organization that will have the name 'Cincinnati police' in it that requests money. So always be skeptical of that."
The I-Team discovered in April, the Ohio attorney general's office shut down the Police Athletic Association.
Former Cincinnati police officer Tim Mercurio is the founder and was running it. He signed a document that states he "committed deceptive acts while soliciting" for it, mislead donors and personally benefited from it.
Mercurio and the Greater Cincinnati Police Athletic Association are in violation of the Ohio Charitable Organizations Act, the Ohio Charitable Trust Act and common law, according to the document.
The document also states Mercurio disputes those claims and it "does not constitute an admission of any wrongdoing."
Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters said his office has opened an investigation. He said he had "no doubt" that the group has still been asking for donations.
"They've been very successful in raising money," he said.
At this point, it's unclear how much money is involved, according to Deters. The I-Team also discovered the federal government revoked the group's nonprofit status in 2010 because it failed to file required 990 forms.
"What makes it, to us, so disturbing is that they're using the front of helping poor kids and using police, acting like they're police and things like that, and using that to raise money," Deters said. "And frankly, as far as we can tell, they're just stealing it."
Deters said he couldn't share much more at the moment, saying there are still witnesses to interview.
"I'm confident people are going to be indicted over this thing," he said.
An attorney for Mercurio, Mike Allen, said his client denies any wrongdoing.
Deters said people should not donate to the group.
"Tell them, 'No.' Just say, 'No,' he said."
Deters added that anyone who might have information that could help the investigation should contact the Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office or Cincinnati Police Department.
The Ohio Attorney General's Office has some tips for people giving to charity:
To help ensure donations are used as intended, donors should check requests before contributing. For example:
- Don’t rely on a group’s name alone. Many sham charities have real-sounding names.
- Don’t assume a charity recommendation you find online has been vetted, even if it’s posted by someone you know. Check it out yourself.
- Research charities using the Ohio Attorney General’s Office and other resources.
- Check an organization’s IRS Form 990, which is typically available on GuideStar, to find program descriptions, expenses, and other details.
- Determine how you can best help. For example, a charity may prefer monetary donations rather than donated goods. Similarly, if you want to set up a fundraiser for a specific group, contact the organization in advance to determine how you can properly collect donations.
- Be aware that some calls come from for-profit companies that are paid to collect donations. If you ask, these professional solicitors must tell you how much of your donation will go to the charity. They also are required to identify themselves.
When evaluating crowdfunding or online fundraising campaigns set up to help those impacted by the storm, keep additional considerations in mind. For example:
- Determine which campaigns are supported by those close to the tragedy and which haven’t been vetted. In some cases, the person who sets up an online fundraiser may not have permission to do so or may not use the funds as promised.
- Find out how your money will be used. For example, will it be used for a specific person or family, or will it be used for the greater community? Keep in mind that that giving money to an individual is different from donating to a charity. Your donation may not be tax deductible. Also determine whether you will be charged any fees for making the donation and what percentage of your donation will go to the cause itself.
Those who suspect a charity scam or questionable charitable activity should contact the Ohio Attorney General’s Office at www.OhioAttorneyGeneral.gov or 800-282-0515. The Ohio Attorney General’s Charitable Law Section investigates suspected violations of the state’s charitable laws and pursues enforcement actions to protect Ohio donors.