It was intended to be a lasting memorial to Nicole Brown Simpson, a non-profit organization committed to stamping out the domestic violence she allegedly suffered at the hands of her ex-husband and accused killer, O. J. Simpson.
Unveiled last December at New York's posh Rainbow Room, the Nicole Brown Simpson Charitable Foundation quickly took in tens of thousands of dollars in private donations -- to be spent, her grieving family said, on a nationwide campaign to raise awareness about spousal abuse and fund the shelters that serve its victims.
But in the ensuing months, it is the Browns themselves who have undergone a painful education.
Their philanthropic efforts have been blemished by a series of gaffes and misfires that have both embarrassed the family and undermined the foundation's credibility, according to court documents, tax statements and interviews.
The founding president of the Nicole Brown Simpson fund, records show, is a convicted felon and accused spousal batterer, who was once named in a domestic restraining order for posing a "clear and present danger" to his estranged wife and two children.
Jeff C. Noebel, 48, a Dallas businessman, is awaiting sentencing in U.S. District Court for lying to federal authorities in a savings-and-loan investment scam.
"I guess you'd call us novices," said family patriarch Louis Brown, 71, who asked Noebel to step down in March after a tabloid reporter tipped the family to his checkered past. "I get bitter with myself for thinking how stupid we were."
The Browns also have accepted donations from a host of controversial sponsors, many of whom profit from scandal -- prompting others in the fight against domestic violence to question the family's judgment.
According to tax records reviewed by the Los Angeles Times, contributors to the Nicole Brown Simpson Charitable Foundation have included: Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione ($10,000); Geraldo Rivera and his associated companies ($35,000); the National Enquirer's parent corporation ($5,000); No Excuses, the jeans maker that has hitched itself to some of America's most sensational liaisons ($50,000); and Dove Audio, publisher of Faye Resnick's sexually explicit tell-all book about Nicole, which Louis Brown himself denounced as "trash" ($10,000).
"To accept money from these folks is really unconscionable," said Carol Arthur, executive director of the Domestic Abuse Project, a respected Minnesota-based program that has been replicated around the country. "It goes against everything that our movement believes in."
The Browns, some abuse experts suggest, might not yet possess a full understanding of the complex issues underlying domestic violence -- just as the family initially denied that Nicole Brown Simpson was herself a battered woman. The prevailing philosophy, according to most mainstream organizations, is to view spousal abuse not just in terms of the offending individual, but as the outgrowth of an entire society that glorifies violence.
Denise Brown, the organization's spokeswoman and chief executive officer, did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. Her father, Louis Brown, who took over as president in the wake of Noebel's dismissal, concedes that the foundation slipped into a state of dormancy almost as soon as it was launched.
According to their 1994 tax statement, the only financial documents made public by the foundation, $153,888 was raised last December, the group's first month in operation. Of that, $5,525 was spent on legal fees, $314 on postage and $19 on supplies.
Each time a donation of at least $5 is received, the foundation offers its thanks with a small angel pin. Close to 10,000 of them have been handed out. But when it comes to dispensing funds, the family has been less prolific. Since incorporating on Nov. 30, 1994, the Nicole Brown Simpson Charitable Foundation has yet to issue a grant.
The seeds of the foundation were sown in the grief and anger of last summer's brutal slaying of Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ronald Goldman, allegedly at the hands of football great O.J. Simpson. He has pleaded not guilty to the murders.
Although the Browns were deluged with suggestions about how to best pay homage to Nicole and rebuild their shattered lives, their catalyst seems to have been Jeff Noebel, a dapper, smooth-talking financier who made his first million -- in cash, he notes -- before his 30th birthday.
Noebel contends the Browns knew about his troubles when he presented them with an outline for the charitable foundation. At the time, he was under federal indictment in Texas for a scam that allegedly bilked 14 investors out of $875,000.
Rather than face trial, Noebel agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and pleaded guilty in February to one count of making a false statement to U.S. banking regulators.
Court documents also show that Noebel's estranged wife has accused him of a pattern of stalking and abuse that came to head in June 1994, just days after Nicole Brown Simpson was killed.
Testifying in their divorce proceedings, Leisa Marie Noebel, 37, said she came home from work to find Noebel in a rage, apparently looking for a desk they had once purchased together. When she told him she had sold it, Noebel "became very angry and shoved me against the door."
She said she slipped away but Noebel followed her into the kitchen, allegedly throwing her against a cabinet and ripping a telephone out of the wall.
Twice that day, Noebel's wife called police to the house, although she would not press charges, according to Dallas Police Department records. But the next day, she did ask a judge to issue a restraining order, urging that Noebel be required "to submit to counseling or to complete a batterer's treatment program."
Noebel, the father of two young boys, dismisses his wife's charges as a ploy in their custody battle. "Abuse is the allegation du jour," he said, not exactly sounding like an advocate for battered women.