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Questions swirl around Lisa Wheeler-Brown’s foundation formed in her son’s honor

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

St. Pete City Council candidate Lisa Wheeler-Brown started a foundation in her slain son’s name following his death in 2008. The Cabretti Wheeler-Fortner Foundation’s mission statement was to “prevent another mother from losing a child.”

But there are questions about how much money the foundation brought in and how money was used.

Manta.com and several other business and non-profit foundation databases list the foundation as a “club” with an estimated annual revenue of $81,000 with three employees. That information comes from anyone who provides it. According to the Wheeler-Brown campaign, there was nowhere near $81,000 in revenue ever, let alone annually.

Databases like Manta.com allow any user to provide corporation or non-profit information including revenue estimates and employee counts. According to the website’s cache for the Foundation’s page, it was last updated on September 11 and October 15 of this year.

That is rare for these types of websites suggesting the page may have been recently created. However, a law enforcement online forum draws attention to the foundation as far back as February linking to the same information.

The projected figure may be way off the mark. According to an email from Manta.com explaining how projections are made, a company representative explained they are based on “statistical models based on the industry, age of business, geographic region and other criteria.”

That means we still don’t know how much the foundation brought in. However, Wheeler-Brown has not released any documentation of contributions or expenses into the campaign. Her campaign consultants say it was a small amount of money and was donated to a charity when the foundation failed to raise enough to seek 501(c)3 status.

According to a search, a foundation expected to bring in less than $10,000 a year would only have to pay about $400 to apply for non-profit status.

Regardless of how much or how little was raised, Wheeler-Brown was still required to file with the Department of Agriculture. That also did not happen.

There were no records found for the “Cabretti Wheeler-Fortner Foundation” as a registered Florida corporations or non-profit, but there was a listing for the Cabretti Foundation in Florida according to Sunbiz.org.

What’s also troubling is the absence of any tax filings. The respected Guidestar database of non-profit organization tax documents didn’t produce any results for a charitable organization with the word “Cabretti.”

However, when Wheeler-Brown received an award for her community activism following her son’s murder, the Foundation was cited. The organization received recognition from the U.S. Department of Justice for Wheeler-Brown’s activism following the murder of her son and the foundation was listed in that honor as having “spent countless hours educating youth and the community about the lasting effects of violence, campaigning and promoting nonviolence, engaging neighborhoods to improve police and community relations and their coordinating vigils to pray for the healing of victims’ survivors and their families.”

The Wheeler-Brown campaign explained the Foundation didn’t raise enough money to establish 501(c)3 status and instead used the money for road cleanup efforts involving people in jail. The campaign would not comment further stating that was the only information available.

The lack of accessible information begs the questions: Who donated to the foundation and how was the money used? Wheeler-Brown’s campaign is already reeling from a series of campaign finance errors including use of funds for a personal expense, failure to report expenses and in-kind contributions and a series of other careless reporting errors.

The Foundation’s Facebook page has been inactive for more than a year and a half. The most recent post was in January, 2014. Prior to that the page served primarily as memorial to Cabretti Wheeler. Posts were written by Wheeler-Brown in a one-sided and emotional conversation between a mother and her deceased child.

Even though the Facebook page has gone inactive, the Foundation itself was only just dismantled last month. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was closed shortly after campaign finance violations were uncovered by SaintPetersblog.

Those violations have since been used as evidence in an official complaint to the Florida Division of Elections.

Wheeler-Brown’s opponent, Will Newton, has made the possible violations a part of his campaign. During a recent televised debate including Newton, he referenced the issue during closing statements. However, Newton’s campaign declined to comment on the new information.

The two candidates face off at the polls on November 3. However, it’s expected that about half of those who will vote in this race may have already done so by mail.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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