It's four p.m. on April 22
, a beautiful spring day in Baltimore. At the corner of Mount Royal and North avenues, a group of seven people are working in traffic. Dressed in yellow T-shirts, they carry five-gallon buckets with orange tops. When cars stop for the red light, they ask drivers for money.
"We're raising money for a recreation center," one of the young women says as a reporter and photographer approach. "I started yesterday."
The girl probably did start yesterday, but the group—and others that appear to operate much like it—have worked this corner for years. Some neighbors are unhappy about the constant soliciting. They say they are worried about the safety of the solicitors, who have sometimes appeared very young. A group of Bolton Hill residents complained to the police and their city-council members about the activity. They were told nothing could be done.
And maybe nothing can be done. At least nothing simple. A closer look at this perennial summer show in Baltimore brings to the fore First Amendment rights, charity and child-labor laws, and the personal, financial, and criminal backgrounds of the people running the operations. Bottom line: It's complicated. But it's complicated in interesting ways, and in ways you might not expect.
Depending on your general outlook on humanity, you may be surprised to learn that regular panhandlers are not the only souls protected (theoretically, anyway) from state harassment. As a practical matter, so are people collecting money under false pretenses—as many, including these yellow-shirted folks, apparently are. State laws are changing even now to tighten up requirements for charitable soliciting, but enforcement at curbside seems unlikely, at least in Baltimore.
Then again, many charities counted in every way legitimate by the state and its many regulators practice the same alleged sins as the yellow T-shirt crew—paying naive youngsters a pittance to beg on behalf of causes that seldom see more than a tiny fraction of the proceeds. The state may discriminate starkly between those corporations registered as 501(c)(3)s and those not, but on the ground, that demarcation is nowhere near obvious.
Here is how one Bolton Hill resident described the situation in an email: "For the past couple of summers there have been groups of children, some teenagers but many as young as (or younger than) 5, asking for money at the intersection of North Avenue and Mount Royal. The children dart in and out of traffic, at an intersection in which cars are often zooming off of I-83. Many of them are barely taller than the car's engine. Several of us in the neighborhood have been very concerned about the safety of these kids—there is sometimes an adult sitting in the shade ‘supervising.' Other neighbors have observed an adult ‘paying out' the children at the end of a shift. Another neighbor approached the adult and asked about the ‘camp' and was told that it was a leadership camp (but the ‘leading' was learning how to ‘fundraise' in traffic). Some neighbors have called the police, but were told there was nothing the BPD could do."
In March Bolton Hill residents met with City Councilman William Cole (D-11th District) and some police and social-service officials. The social-service people said they could not do anything unless they had a complaint about child abandonment. Police basically said their hands were tied by the American Civil Liberties Union, which makes it its business to protect the rights of panhandlers everywhere.
"It's frankly dangerous," Cole said in April, when first contacted by
. "When the light is green, people come off the ramp at a high rate of speed."
Cole says residents have a legitimate concern about the safety of those kids, but "there is not a whole heck of a lot we can do under existing law."
The problem is that pesky First Amendment. The same fool thing that gives
the right to set all this down also gives you—and anyone, really—the right to stand on the median and beg for cash. Various local anti-panhandling ordinances (including one proposed last year to prohibit median-strip begging) have been shot down because of this Constitution thing.
Cole says this right to beg in the streets extends, practically speaking, to adults using children to beg on their behalf. "Police don't really have the right to say to the kids, ‘where is your parent or guardian?' We went through that angle—to see if there is a child endangerment concern," he says. "The police could pick him up—then where do you take the kid?"
Remember: This is a daytime activity. The renewed curfew ordinance and its proposed "youth connection centers" are not relevant.
Cole says that if a woman sitting under a tree and drinking a soda on the median claims she's operating a "summer camp," then the police are checkmated. Not that he's happy about this.
"If they are purporting to be a nonprofit collecting donations for a nonprofit that doesn't exist—for instance, we hear they are collecting to build a rec center on Reservoir Hill. It doesn't exist! I've asked," Cole says. "But that does not necessarily make it a police issue."
Cole says there are "other areas of law" that might be brought to bear. He suggests the state comptroller's office, adding that he's heard "plenty of rumors that the kids are getting compensated for doing this work. That raises issues of child-labor laws."
And this is true. Or, anyway, it was true, one time, two years ago (and one other time, 70 years ago) in Massachusetts.
In May of 2012, Roderick Pendleton, age 48, pleaded guilty in a state court in Massachusetts to eight counts of child-labor-law violations stemming from an outfit he named (ingeniously!) "The International Teenster Union, Inc."
According to the Massachusetts Attorney General, Pendleton employed six underage kids, leaving them "unattended in the streets of Roxbury, Dorchester and Boston to solicit cash donations for ITU . . . a purported charitable organization to benefit children with HIV, AIDS, and cancer . . . from motorists stopped at traffic lights."
Pendleton got 30 days in jail for his crimes, though after his guilty plea he was released on time served.
"Hiring underage children is both against the law and an unacceptable form of exploitation," Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said in a statement. "The defendant illegally hired children to solicit money while left unattended on the streets and in parking lots."
The Teenster Union was a Massachusetts corporation until its charter was "involuntarily revoked" in 2012, but it appears that it was never a legitimate charity. A check of Guidestar, the online charity database, found zero returns for "International Teenster Union," "Teensters Union," etc.
had no luck reaching out to the people who ran it.
Could a prosecution like that happen in Baltimore?
Probably not. David Paulson, spokesman for Maryland Attorney General (and gubernatorial candidate) Doug Gansler, says his boss would swing into action (hypothetically, of course) only if another agency brought it something to swing at. "I believe it's a case of a state agency working up a case and either our office or a state's attorney pursuing it in the courts, if it warrants such action," he writes in an email.
But, Paulson adds, there are other possibilities: "The General Assembly just passed legislation that enhances the enforcement of such things—not just this sort of alleged exploitation per se—and the bill number is HB1352."
That bill, based on the Model Protection of Charitable Assets Act from the Uniform Law Commission, is now law. It raises the registration fee to the state's more than 7,000 charities in order to fund a searchable database so the secretary of state's one charity investigator, currently Michael P. Schlein, will have some means (other than fielding complaints) of deciding which charities to investigate.
The irony here, of course, is that the new law is targeted squarely at the heart of registered charities, leaving all those solicitors who elect to remain unregistered out of the proposed database—and off the investigator's radar.
Schlein, the state's charity investigator, told us that all the charities in the state are required to register, though those taking in less than $25,000 face a less paper-intensive process. Something like 11,000 do so each year, he says. And when he finds one that hasn't, he'll contact it to remind it to do so, for starters. He won't say what happens next, leaving the prospect of punitive investigatory outcomes hanging in the air.
Paulson had one other possible legal avenue: Transportation Article 21-507(f), which says you need to have a permit to "solicit money or donations of any kind from the occupant of a vehicle." He provided several advisory letters the attorney general's office sent—one in 2005 to a state delegate, which explained that "the clear purpose of this provision, as evidenced by the qualifications for a permit, is to reduce the number of people soliciting at intersections and to ensure those who solicit in intersections do so safely." Another went to then-Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold in 2006, saying the adjacent article (e) in the same statute authorized the county to enact an ordinance prohibiting minors from soliciting in the street. That letter cited a 1944 Supreme Court decision that upheld the conviction of a Jehovah's Witness on child-labor violations in—how about that?—Massachusetts. "It is my view that there is no basis whatsoever on which to claim that Anne Arundel County may not limit licenses to solicit money and donations from the occupant of a vehicle by standing in a roadway, median divider or intersection to those who are at least 18 years of age," the letter, signed by Assistant Attorney General Kathryn M. Rowe, says.
So the law is quite clear—at least in the attorney general's office's opinion.
As you might expect, the legal questions surrounding roadway solicitation tend to turn on matters of race and class. Not every platoon of youngsters adorably begging for cash is necessarily deemed suspect (or endangered) by passing motorists or neighbors.
"The one concern I had," says City Councilman Nick Mosby (D-7th District). "That's a high-volume intersection. You see everything from basketball teams, to fire fighters, to colleges" soliciting there. If the city or state wants to discourage the practice, Mosby says, "you have to do it across the board. You can't single out folks whether you think what they're doing is legitimate or not legitimate."
Mosby, who lives with his wife, state's attorney candidate Marilyn Mosby, in Reservoir Hill, says he sees the yellow-shirt crew on the corner "almost every day" with six to eight people. "They do shifts," he says, "and that's a high-volume thing."
Back on the Northwest corner
of Mount Royal at North Avenue on April 22, six people are sitting on orange-lidded buckets. Several are taking a smoke break before resuming the charitable effort. A young man, maybe 5'11", thin build in a red T-shirt bearing the logo "Afrikan Heritage Walk-a-thon," approaches a
reporter and photographer from across the street. He introduces himself as "Tee Larkin." A bulkier man, who appears to be in his 30s, hands over a blue business card with the business name of "1 Needs Everyone, Inc." and the personal name of "Steven Harvin, Executive Financial Manager."
Larkin says he's the "co-founder" of 1 Needs Everyone and that it is a subsidiary of the Afrikan Heritage Walkathon. The two corporations' nonprofit missions are intertwined, he says.
"We're working on getting a building for a multipurpose recreation center up the street here," Larkin says. "We're looking for the best price."
Larkin says the building they're looking at is 5,000 square feet "with another 2,000 on the roof." It was zoned residential and now is commercial, Larkin explains, adding that the group needs $100,000 to get the rec center up and running, "depending on if renovation is needed."
Larkin can't remember the address. But he knows the price. "They were asking $33,000. Now he dropped it to $23,000," he says. "It's right on Brookfield. It's called The Carlton."
This scenario appears unlikely, at best. A search for "The Carlton" quickly reveals that it is a vacant apartment building at 2201 Brookfield Avenue. It sold for $357,500 in 2007 and was flipped again last fall for a reported $185,000, land records indicate. It has no windows and not much in the way of roof structure, and likely would require renovation work costing many hundreds of thousands of dollars. The building is not publicly listed for sale, and
was unable to reach the current owner.
Fundraising for the rec center has been going on for a year, Larkin explains. It is but one of the many projects the group does.
The walkathon is coming May 31, Larkin says. (And that happened—the group charged $20 for adults, $10 for children and handicapped, to walk from the great Blacks in Wax Museum to Druid Hill Park.) There is also a talent show, last Friday of every month, 8 p.m. at the Forrest Park Senior Recreational Community Center at 4801 Liberty Heights Ave. It's $15 to get in and see 10 to 12 amateur acts. The admission price also gets you a T-shirt and a ticket for the door prize. The talent winner gets $300, Larkin says.
This claim appears to be true, or at least it was until recently. The 1 Needs Everyone website advertises a $5,000 cash prize for "Charm City's Biggest and Best" talent contests that you can enter for a $25 fee or watch if you buy a $15 ticket. "Donations, as well as sponsorship, are both 100% tax deductible," the site says. The website's blog indicates the last event was held in April but that the next show "will not be held until further notice."
Larkin says his group "raised over $22,000 for other nonprofits that we're giving away." Asked for more detail, he mentions the John Eager Howard Community Center. "We gave them $150," he boasts. "It's not that much but it was a big deal to them."
The charity's other interests involve enriching the youth, Larkin continues: "We deal with a lot of children here at Mount Royal Elementary School. We take them on numerous field trips." He says they have been to Washington, D.C. and "we're going to Philadelphia this year."
A representative from the school later tells
that the school has never had any relationship with Afrikan Heritage Walkathon or 1 Needs Everyone.
But wait! There's more.
"We're working with the Baltimore City Police right now," Larkin says, adding that the project will highlight the good police work of the department's good police. He says he's working with Lt. Col. Melvin Russell, the department's community liaison.
Two days later, by email, Russell tells
, "I'm sorry as this group doesn't ring a bell as far as being in collaboration with my division." He copied his note to others in the department saying, "Team are any of you familiar with the following?" Police said they found no evidence of any relationship to the groups.
Larkin readily agrees that traffic on the intersection is dangerous. He says the design is at fault. "Look at this light," he says, pointing to the signal above the intersection facing Mount Royal. "See the arrow? People who come here, newcomers, think it's the straight when it's actually the turning lane." He says he sees near accidents all the time.
In a display that seems rehearsed, several of the crew introduce themselves and confirm (sometimes without being asked) that they are unpaid volunteers—a remarkable claim given the rigors of the work. The gig goes from about 10
. until 6
., they say, on a different corner every day. Everyone was adamant that, on any given morning, they have no idea where they will be soliciting until the van drops them there.
No one here looks to be under 18. Certainly there is no one in the grade-school category that the neighbors claimed to be worried about.
"For me, I don't care if they're bogus or real, or using the money for food or beer or whatever," says Elizabeth Kennedy, one of the Bolton Hill neighbors. "I just care about the safety of very small children, which this summer I don't see."
Kennedy speculates that newspaper reporters snooping around may have tamped down the underage soliciting, but a simpler theory makes more sense: Afrikan Heritage doesn't use young kids; a different company does—or did.
"This was two years ago, I was turning off North Avenue to Mount Royal," says Kendra Parlock, the vice president of the Mount Royal Improvement Association. "A little boy came up to the car. I gave him some money. He was so small, so small, so cute. I was thinking, he ought not be out here.
"He said ‘you want a flier?' So I said yes…and the flier listed the organization they were with. They described a youth camp."
Parlock looked into it, and the more she learned, the more uncomfortable she got. "They describe it: They come pick your kid up early in the morning. They bring them back late at night. There's a fundraising activity in the morning and then lunch, then something fun in the afternoon," Parlock says. "But the biggest thing was the fundraising in the intersection. I found it sort of crazy that the camp is about panhandling on North Avenue."
Parlock says the children's safety was her only concern.
Khayree Robinson says she had nothing to worry about.
Robinson is the President of Together Every1 Achieves More—TEAM, for short—and he confirms Parlock's description of their activity, which he says stopped after the neighbors complained. He has an explanation.
"Car washes, bake sales, little things that you would expect a nonprofit to do to raise money was not giving us the financial means to keep those children" occupied in wholesome pursuits, Robinson says in a telephone interview.
Robinson says he came to Baltimore—Brooklyn, to be exact—in 2010 to start a youth mentoring program. "Our intentions were to get the community together, develop some programs . . . be able to revitalize the community," he says.
"I've been working with kids all my life," he says. "I have an adopted sister, two foster brothers. My dad was a ward of the state . . . my whole life based on the struggle."
Robinson, who says he attended Morgan State University and graduated from Coppin State with a degree in management science, says he knocked on doors on 10th Street, which he describes as a drug market. Then he approached the dealers. He is adamant that the young kids Bolton Hill neighbors described—their heads at the height of car's engines—were never in his group. "We said these 12- and 13-year-old boys are at a crossroads," Robinson says. He asked the dealers to give them a chance at a different life, and the drug dealers said OK.
"Everyone has a history, I been on both sides of the system as well," Robinson says.
Court records indicate that Robinson is still on both sides of the system. He is currently on probation for assault, having pleaded guilty in February in Baltimore County Circuit Court. In 2008 he entered an Alford plea, admitting that the state had the goods on him, to a Prince Georges County drug-dealing charge stemming from a 2007 indictment. The related gun charge was dropped, and Robinson was sentenced to 10 years in prison with all but 18 months suspended. Busted in Anne Arundel County in January for possessing two driver's licenses while driving a Pennsylvania-registered Lexus, he failed to appear at a May 27 court date, and so his driver's license was automatically suspended.
To give opportunities to preteens in Brooklyn in 2010, Robinson says he asked for corporate and foundation grants, but was unsuccessful. He was able to get use of the city-owned rec center in Brooklyn, however, and got $1,500 from BB&T for team jerseys for the basketball league. "So during the summertime we created a concept—continue to raise money on the corners, and whatever we make, we keep them off the street for that day. They get to eat," Robinson says. "They get conflict-resolution training" and TEAM grows into a real program.
TEAM grew from about 30 families the first year to more than 300 last year, and the budget went to about $300,000, Robinson says.
"The first year we basically begged," he says. "The second year we gave them fliers and we were selling waters." The fundraising on Mount Royal stopped when the residents complained, Robinson says. But fundraising by other means will continue.
"Last year we raised enough money to raise a little stand," he says. "We're selling snowballs on Woodlawn Drive—next to the Woodlawn fire association." Robinson says the fire association allowed TEAM to use the huge parking lot next to the fire station. The stand's grand opening is in July.
"I hope you paint our picture in a way that doesn't criminalize us. Nothing we did is criminal," Robinsons says. "We were a legit 501(c)(3) non profit. We still are."
And that is essentially true—or almost true. In fact, Together Every1 Achieves More is not in good standing with state tax authorities, apparently because it didn't pay a small renewal fee. This could be easily remedied.
And the corporation did file its tax forms as required. According to its 2011 return, TEAM raised an impressive $197,000 that year, enough to pay Robinson a $54,000 salary. TEAM spent $109,000 that year on "youth activities" and allocated $57,000 to "other" expenses which are unspecified. Bill Robinson—who turns out to be Khayree's cousin—was paid $12,600 for full-time work and the finance director, Veronica Logan, made a modest $19,000 or so.
In 2012 TEAM tripled its revenue to $589,649, that year's tax form says. Kayree Robinson got a raise to $76,000 while Bill's pay jumped to $51,000. Strangely, "youth activities" absorbed just $95,000 that year, and the group paid out $313,000 to "mentor contractors."
Khayree advised that "Mr. Bill" could connect
to some of the people TEAM helped. "We're kind of a family business so we're all kind of related," says Mr. Bill. But Bill could not estimate the number of kids in the various programs. Asked the annual budget, he estimated it at a half a million.
Asked if all that was raised soliciting on the street, he starts to stammer.
"We're a therapeutic mentoring," Bill Robinson says. "We work through LRNs . . . we actually work through—what's that called—PRP?"
He is asked, what's PRP?
The line goes silent. Then it goes dead.
It's a couple days later before Khayree Robinson returns our calls, but he does. About his group's fundraising prowess, he says that after three years at it, he's gotten some corporate support along with the bake sales and street solicitations that drew attention in Bolton Hill.
"My background is in nonprofits. I worked with several nonprofits," he says, mentioning Boy Scouts of America, Boys and Girls Clubs, and the Maryland National Capital Park Planning. As a "district executive" with scouts, he says, he has a photograph of himself with former President George W. Bush.
The Scouts gig was from 2004 to about 2007, Robinson says. Asked if it overlapped with his work on a drug crew, he declines to detail the circumstances of that case, but suggests it stemmed from errors in judgment he had made prior to that time and that he tells the youth he mentors that "the people that you choose to associate with, whether you're in a lifestyle or not, can come back to bite you."
The more recent arrest he chalks up to racism. "I'm still young and black," he says. "So when a state trooper sees me . . ."
Working late on behalf of the charity, Robinson says he had a couple drinks with a donor, then got in his car to go home. He got tired and pulled over and, as he slept in the car, a cop approached and ended up breathalyzing him. Of the resulting assault charge, he says, "it was simply this: I took a deep breath, like a sigh. I said, ‘I can't believe you're locking me up.' And from that sigh, he said that spit got on him."
Of the two driver's licenses Robinson says nothing, but he insists that his Maryland license is valid. "The letter is sent," he says. "I paid the fine."
Robinson is proud of his work with TEAM. In our first conversation, he was keen to make the point his group hit the Mount Royal/North Avenue intersection before Afrikan Heritage, and did it classier. "We didn't just solicit donations, we sold waters," he says. "We were out there before them."
TEAM might have beat
the Afrikan Heritage group to the corner, but Afrikan Heritage Walkathon is much older. Incorporated in 2005, it has staged its annual walkathon since 2003, according to a 2007 flier announcing that year's event.
What the group—and its president, CEO, co-founder, and director, Victory Christine Swift—has never done, however, is file a full Form 990, which is the one thing that the Internal Revenue Services requires of nearly every charitable corporation in America.
Even so, it's a legal nonprofit.
A letter from the IRS, included in its application for last year's walkathon, indicates that Afrikan Heritage Walkathon is indeed exempt from federal taxes, and dates that exemption from February of 2005. The Form 990 is required, the letter dated Oct. 21, 2012 says, but a check of the IRS website finds just two "postcard" tax returns, called 990-Ns, from 2010 and 2012. ¿The 990-N is a one-page form with little detail. On it, the charity attests only that it collected less than $50,000 in total donations. Like all tax forms, they are due annually.
"I'm glad you called," Victory Swift tells
over the phone on June 17. "We just had our 13th annual walkathon on May 31." She says she would like to meet, but asks to call back after checking her schedule and signs off with "peace and blessings."
She does not call back, nor does she respond to several subsequent phone messages. Her business office, at 25 E. North Ave. is locked when
visits. No one answers the door at her home either.
Without the tax forms (or the principles' cooperation) it is impossible to know how much money the group has raised or what it spent the money on. Whatever the amount, it has not been enough to get Swift out of debt, court records indicate. Mark Clark, who resides at the same address as Swift, faces a $25,000 judgment from All Pro Quality Cleaning Services Inc., according to one court case. Christine Swift is a co-defendant in that case.
Swift is also a defendant in a $1,123 wage garnishment case filed by a collections agency. The garnishment is from Darden Restaurants.
In another case, Michael J. Fradkin, P.A. got a $9,356 judgment against Swift in 2011. A woman at Fradkin's office said they don't comment on collection cases.
Swift does not appear to have a criminal record and neither does Larkin, but a Steven Harvin—same name and approximate age as the man whose 1 Needs Everyone business card reads "Executive Financial Manager"—was sentenced to three years in state prison in 2003 after a drug conviction.
A Baltimore-based Steve Harvin is more recently enrolled in an online school called Ashford University, based in Iowa. He plans to graduate in 2015, according to his profile on LinkedIn.
The nonprofit registration status
of Afrikan Heritage or its sister groups "is not the slightest legal problem," says David Rocah, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland. "You do not have to be incorporated to ask for money. It's not illegal."
Rocah also happens to live in Bolton Hill, he says, so he is intimately familiar with the corner and what happens on it. "The vast majority I see there are simply beggars," he says. "Once in a while I see folks raising money for something . . . less often, kids. And like I say I'm there every single weekday and most weekends."
Legally speaking, Rocah is opining only about one's constitutional rights. "So it would be illegal to falsely claim the donations are tax deductible when they are not, or to claim you are raising money for cause X and simply pocketing the money—that would be fraud," he says. "People can be prosecuted for fraud and that doesn't raise the slightest First-Amendment issue."
The problem comes when some people are presumed to be soliciting fraudulently while others are not, and so are subjected to stricter enforcement of existing law, Rocah says.
"The city has an existing law, it's called Article 19 Section 47-4, which already prohibits asking the operator of a motor vehicle that is in traffic on a public street for money," Rocah says. "That prohibition already exists. And if it were enforced in a neutral way probably could be enforced. But it's largely unenforced and one reason I believe it's unenforced is because there are several favored speakers who do just that—like firefighters with the boot—and the one thing the government can't do is have a rule only for disfavored speakers."
In other words, the illegality of the firefighters' fundraisers render any and all illegalities committed by Afrikan Heritage, TEAM, or anyone else who might (allegedly) raise money this way under bogus pretenses or with tactics that endanger small children, legally moot.
"It's fine, they can not enforce it," Rocah says. "But they can't enforce it selectively."
He allows that a rule requiring a minimum height for child solicitors—or even a minimum age—might be enforceable. And "as I told Bill [Cole, the city councilman], if they pay the kids, that's a violation of child-labor law."
Basically, any legal avenue that approaches the purported issue far away from the First Amendment is OK with Rocah. "And I don't think we should leap to the conclusion that, because the groups are not registered 501(c)(3) charities, the group is illegitimate," he says.
A no-kids approach appears to be working in some jurisdictions. Fifteen years ago, a Florida town decreed that no one under 18 could shake the can on the median.
That law seems to have stood up, but the ACLU takes the right to solicit—even fraudulently—seriously enough that it has sued jurisdictions from Portland, Oregon to Worcester, Massachusetts, that have sought to enact overly broad solicitation bans.
Perhaps ironically, fundraising on behalf of the ACLU has been Grassroots Campaigns Inc. (GCI), a Boston-based outfit that runs nation-wide solicitations for the good guys (Planned Parenthood, Amnesty International USA, Freedom to Marry, and Save the Children, etc.) and often, according to a 2011 investigation by the
, nets the charities zero percent of the rake.
The difference between GCI and, say, TEAM? GCI uses bushy-tailed college kids and pays the minimum wage (plus commissions!). So that's all entirely on the up and up.
Schlein, the investigator and extradition coordinator at the secretary of state's office, checks his database. Neither Afrikan Heritage Walkathon nor Together Every1 Achieves More is registered, as required by state law, he says, adding that he'll reach out to them when he returns from vacation next week.