George LeGrice doesn’t bake, knit or sew. But after watching news coverage of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, he wanted to help. So the Massachusetts resident organized Spike’s Ride for Sandy Hook—a car, bike, and truck show. LeGrice raised tens of thousands of dollars for victims and their families.
"We had people selling Newtown memorabilia there,” LeGrice recalled, “Bracelets and stuff like that to go to help the town. We had family members show up. It was a good time.”
George’s instinct to help was shared by many. In the aftermath of the shooting, dozens of groups and individuals organized to collect donations of goods, services and cash for Sandy Hook causes.
"In Newtown, there was a significant amount of money collected within 30 days after the event,” said Department of Consumer Protection commissioner William Rubenstein.
Much of that money went into the Newtown-Sandy Hook Community Foundation, which is the largest fund for victims and survivors. Yet even as frustration grows over how and when those donations will be doled out, there are millions in other collection pots still being accounted for. The state is trying to track it all.
"We've determined that there are at least 70 or so entities that we've identified that have collected about $21 million dollars or so,” said Rubenstein.
"They have to spend the money in the way it was intended by the donors to be spent,” he added.
Many charities that sprung up never registered with the state as required by law, so in April the Attorney General and the DCP sent out survey letters asking anyone soliciting funds for Sandy Hook causes to detail how they were using the money.
By June, when the Troubleshooters started looking into it, there were eight charities out of the dozens contacted by the state that still hadn't responded to the survey. So the Troubleshooters started making the rounds--following up to see where the money was going.
LeGrice was one of the people we contacted. His charity ride at Lime Rock Park raised twenty- seven thousand dollars. LeGrice said about $20,000 dollars will go towards Newtown victims and their families. The rest went to overhead for the event.
LeGrice said he hadn't responded to the state's survey before the Troubleshooters reached out to him because, as a first-time fundraiser, things had gotten a little over his head.
“I definitely wasn't ignoring them. Once I sat down [and] clocked out for a few hours, I was like ‘ok, what exactly can I send you, what do you need, what can I get you right now?’ And I took a night off from work…and rifled through my email because I'm not the most organized person in the world,” explained LeGrice.
The Troubleshooters met with LeGrice in Newtown. He showed us the checks he was giving to the Police Union and the local Rotary Club’s Sandy Hook School Fund.
We also reached out to the Newtown Family Recovery Fund. It’s run by a group called National Service Charity out of Georgia. When we reached director Anthony Locke by phone, he told us the charity didn’t respond because the survey was voluntary. But after speaking with the Troubleshooters, National Service Charity sent in its results. The Troubleshooters confirmed the group donated $7,400 to Walnut Hill Community Church in Bethel back in May.
So out of the eight charities, seven did ultimately respond to the state survey. And the AG’s Office told us it has made contact with the final group, and that the money is accounted for.
"A lot of these organizations are newly formed. They're not used to what all the requirements are. They don't have a staff. Sometimes it's just some people hanging around their kitchen who thought they were doing a good thing,” said Commissioner Rubenstein.
But even the best of intentions is sometimes not enough. That appears to be the case with the Sandy Hook Family Healing Fund. It has folded. In June the organizers of the fund told the AG’s Office it had decided to quote "...return all checks back to the donors and donate all cash received to an alternate Sandy Hook Fund."
We reached out to the organizers but haven't heard back. The AG’s Office said it's working with the fund.
"The organizers have been transparent and cooperative in this process,” said the Office in a statement.
Officials said there’s a lesson for consumers in all of this. Anyone donating money to a group or charity should remember to always ask whether the entity is registered with the state, and where the money is intended to go.
Advocates and some victims' families have called on the federal government to establish a national compensation fund so donations after an emergency can go to one central place, and get to victims quickly. In June, Connecticut lawmakers created the Coordinated Assistance and Recovery Endowment, known as CT CARE. At the time, Governor Dannel Malloy’s office announced the Endowment will accept charitable donations in the immediate aftermath of an event like the Sandy Hook School shooting.