Georgia’s charity police could crack a big case, ending 3-year slump

"Holy crap. I'm involved in a major, major scam."

That's what Christy Cunningham’s inner voice said when she realized that the charity she worked for, Noah’s Ark Animal Sanctuary and Children’s Care Home, was raking in donations for a nonexistent home for orphans, she told Channel 2 Action News.

Noah's Ark Children's Care Home in Henry County stopped taking foster children in 2010, but continued to solicit donations, a Channel 2 Action News investigation found. CHANNEL 2 ACTION NEWS

Following Channel 2’s searing exposé last month, the Noah’s Ark case fell into the hands of Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, whose office has a spotty record of holding sham charities accountable. Fraught with turnover and a shrinking budget, Kemp’s Securities and Charities division hasn’t instigated any major punitive action against a nonprofit or a paid solicitor in almost three years, a review of enforcement records by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.

But the team appears to be bearing down hard on Noah’s Ark, a state subpoena shows. Channel 2 reports that Kemp’s office has demanded a list of every child ever housed there, every donation received in the past seven years and financial statements from every bank account and credit card.

The children’s home, located on the same grounds as the popular exotic animal refuge, closed in 2010 because of financial failure. It continued soliciting donations, though, raising another $658,000, Channel 2 reported.

Former employees, including ex-marketing director Cunningham, also alleged Noah’s Ark misused donations for personal expenses and co-mingled money between the animal sanctuary and the children's charity. The former staffers said they tried to stop it, but they were fired.

"I have never misspent one penny, not one penny," Noah’s Ark founder Jama Hedgecoth told the news station. "And I can prove it."

Looks like she may have to.

The state isn’t tiptoeing on this one. The subpoena demands each child’s name, what country she came from, how long she was at Noah’s Ark, how much money the charity spent on her and where she is now. For each donation, regulators want the donor’s name, home address, telephone number, amount given, which program the money went to and if any donors complained. They want revenue figures from every fundraising drive since 2009, and the compensation and contact info for every board member, promoter and manager from that time period.

A subpoena handed to Noah's Ark Animal Sanctuary this month demands details about children helped by the charity and who gave money to the cause.

The case could spell opportunity for those in the trenches of Kemp's charity enforcement efforts. His general counsel and assistant commissioner of Securities & Charities, Ryan Germany, told the AJC that instead of seeking more money for the division, he wants to show how much they can accomplish with their current funding.

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp came under scrutiny after his office accidentally released sensitive personal data on every registered voter in the state. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Only about 2 percent of the Secretary of State's annual $29 million budget is earmarked for the division. The state appropriated more than $2 million for the division in 2008, a figure that has since shrunk to less than $700,000.

"We definitely have a small team over here," Germany told the AJC. "I think that now, we’re doing a good job with what we’ve got.

"There’s always more we could do, and we’d like to do more," he said. "We’re just focused on doing a good job with what we’ve got and how we can do more in the future."

The AJC's report on charity enforcement was one of several in recent days examining Kemp’s operations.

A Sunday story reported that while Kemp blamed a massive data breach on a low-level computer programmer, the release of 6.2 million voters’ personal information happened within a business culture that ignored written policies on safeguarding data for the sake of expediency.

Then on Monday, the AJC reported how Kemp balked at clarifying the state’s absentee voting law, which has been interpreted as making it a crime for anyone to even place a voter’s sealed ballot in a mailbox with their consent. The confusion led to an ill-fated state investigation that sparked allegations of racism and voter suppression.

About the Author

Johnny Edwards
Johnny Edwards
Johnny Edwards is a member of the AJC’s investigative team, focusing on the private sector and state and federal regulation. He has worked at the newspaper...