At the height of his career with the Chicago Bears in the mid-'90s, Chris Zorich was perhaps better known for the work of his charity than for his tackling skills on the gridiron: Thanksgiving turkeys for needy families, holiday toy drives, college scholarships for troubled kids.
But today the Chris Zorich Charitable Foundation is in disarray. Zorich acknowledges he lost track of the charity's finances several years ago and has not gotten around to dispersing the hundreds of thousands of dollars that remained.In April the Internal Revenue Service filed a $10,000 lien against the charity. And the Illinois attorney general's office, which canceled the charity's registration six years ago, said it was trying to reach Zorich regarding the charity's operations after the Tribune asked about its status.
The foundation reported $864,645 in assets on its 2002 tax return, apparently the last one filed. Zorich said he forgot about the money and assumes it's still there. When the Tribune asked to see a bank statement listing the funds, Zorich responded that he did not have one available.
Zorich, who retired from the NFL in 1997 and now works in the University of Notre Dame's athletic office, said the charity closed in 2008 and last accepted donations around 2005. He said he was surprised to hear that chriszorich.org lists an address to mail donations.
Zorich said he had assumed that the charity's former executive director had filed tax returns for the years after 2002 and was shocked to hear otherwise from the Tribune.
"I was kind of concentrating on other things, not necessarily that the foundation was up to par," he said in a recent interview. "To find out things weren't in order is kind of shocking to me."
Many high-profile professional athletes publicly declare their intention to give something back to the community. The organizations do charitable work while also offering another connection with fans and positive media coverage. But as Zorich's story suggests, the efforts can run into trouble if they are not managed correctly.
Some of Chicago sports' biggest stars -- Michael Jordan and Mike Ditka among them -- had trouble operating the charities they founded. Sammy Sosa, in a rare but extreme example, closed his foundation after the director was found to have mishandled funds. Cubs Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg parted ways from a charity bearing his name, and a year later a lack of money forced it to dissolve.
"There's this conception that in philanthropy -- that in doing good -- it will all take care of itself. It will not," said Greg Johnson, executive director of the Sports Philanthropy Project, who consults and advises teams and athletes on philanthropic work. "It's a business, and if you don't tend to your business it'll fall apart. If you didn't do your workouts all the time you wouldn't be very effective on the field."
A South Sider who became an All-American lineman at Notre Dame, Zorich founded his charity in 1993, two years after being drafted by the Bears, to honor the mother who raised him on a $250 monthly paycheck.
During his seven NFL seasons, including six in Chicago, Zorich received numerous accolades and awards for helping disadvantaged children. Tax returns from 2000, 2001 and 2002 show the foundation spent more than $130,000 annually on programs. In each year, the group spent more than 65 percent of its expenses on programs, exceeding the voluntary standard set by the Better Business Bureau.
"Our big event was our food drive. Sometimes Mom and I didn't have food in the house, and we'd have to go through garbage sometimes to get food," said Zorich, who in May was recognized by a Chicago Croatian group for his charity work. "We wound up getting great sponsors and we wound up feeding, I want to say it was 1,500 people a year."
Zorich, who has a law degree from Notre Dame but said he did not pass the bar exam, currently serves as Notre Dame's manager of youth programming and community outreach, assisting with contracts and scheduling.
Problems for the charity began in 2002, when it failed to submit an annual report to the Illinois attorney general on time, according to the attorney general's office. By the time the report was filed two years later, the registration had been canceled, barring the charity from soliciting donations in Illinois.
Zorich said he was aware the registration was canceled but had assumed the foundation's executive director, Barbara Singer, who also was his cousin, had eventually filed the correct paperwork and resolved the matter. The charity continued to operate, he said.
According to the IRS master business file from GuideStar, an independent nonprofit that posts tax returns for U.S. nonprofits online, the foundation's last federal tax return covers June 2002 through May 2003. The IRS office didn't receive the return until 2007, according to the document's time stamp.
"Things started to get a little shaky in like 2004," Zorich said. He said the foundation continued soliciting donations until sometime in 2005.
Zorich said operating the charity was complicated by Singer's battle with cancer and the death of her husband. He said he did not bring in additional volunteers or employees to help handle the finances over fear that Singer would think he viewed her death as imminent.
"I didn't want to make her feel like I thought she was dying, to put it bluntly," Zorich said.
Singer's death in January 2008, he said, left him grieving and distracted. Zorich put documents in storage and, he recalled, promised himself to remember to distribute the assets.
"As I packed everything in the storage I was like, 'Eventually we need to get to this because we have $800,000 in there and obviously some not-for-profits could benefit from it,'" he said.
Tax-exempt organizations that dissolve are required to disperse their funds, usually to other charities. Zorich said he would hire an accounting firm to sort through the finances and help distribute any remaining assets. He told the Tribune he had not yet heard from the attorney general's office.
"Our goal is to bring the organization into compliance so that financial information on the organization is available for potential donors to review and for the protection of the organization's charitable assets," said Robyn Ziegler, spokeswoman for Attorney General Lisa Madigan. "Compliance helps us determine that an organization's charitable assets are used appropriately."
On April 9 the IRS issued a $10,000 lien against the foundation in connection with its tax return from eight years ago, the last one to be filed. Zorich said he was not certain of the reason, and the IRS does not comment on such actions.
Tax-exempt groups that are required to file an annual return and fail to do so for three consecutive years can lose their status -- meaning income becomes taxed and contributions to charitable organizations are no longer tax-deductible. Penalties for failure to file can be as much as $100 per day, up to $50,000 maximum.
The IRS said it still considers the Zorich charity tax-exempt.
Zorich said he hasn't located any documents in his storage unit to explain the lien or the assets. He said it's easy to get distracted during the search.
"It's one of those things where you run across artwork that we got from kids and you're like, 'I remember that, I remember that,' and all of a sudden it's time for the storage unit to close and to come back the next day," he said.
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Tips for donors
Thinking about donating money to an organization? Here are some tips from GuideStar, an independent nonprofit group that posts online all tax returns filed by U.S. nonprofit organizations, such as public charities.
*Focus on the mission: Eliminate any organization that doesn't meet your values or preferences. A reputable organization will define its mission and programs clearly, have measurable goals and use concrete criteria to describe its achievements.
*Compare apples to apples: Compare charities that do the same or similar kind of work, especially when reviewing finances. The type of work a charity does can affect its operating costs; for example, a charity devoted to after-school tutoring could justify spending most of its money on salaries if there is little more to the organization than employees who assist kids.
*Seek transparency: Reputable nonprofits will discuss their programs and finances, do not use pressure tactics, will be willing to send you literature about their work or direct you to a Web site, and will take "no" for an answer.
*Trust your instincts: If it doesn't feel right, don't contribute.