NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — An ongoing NewsChannel 5 investigation discovers serious new questions about how Gideon's Army has spent your money.
This comes as the Nashville social-justice group brought together activists Thursday to demand that city leaders give Gideon's Army a million dollars.
"It is our duty, our job and our pleasure to stand shoulder to shoulder to ensure that you get funding and that we begin in Nashville to fund peace now," Dr. Chico Tillmon, with the Chicago-based group Fund Peace, told reporters.
Gideon's Army works to interrupt violence in North Nashville and help keep kids from getting on a path to prison.
But NewsChannel 5 Investigates discovered financial practices that, regulators say, could be a problem.
Use of personal account
In May 2020, Gideon's Army CEO Rasheedat Fetuga posted a Facebook video that went viral, showing an emotional Pearl-Cohn High School student, Dontrail Spencer, as he celebrated his drive-through graduation.
Spencer had been a youth volunteer with the non-violence group Gideon’s Army.
His story was picked up and shared on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show."
“Dontrail has just been through so much to have an opportunity, you know, like this, to go viral and have millions and millions of people to see his video," Fetuga told DeGeneres.
But Fetuga raised some eyebrows in the community when she posted that video, touting Gideon’s Army’s work and soliciting donations for Dontrail — using her own personal Cash App account.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Fetuga, "That video has had more than four million views. How much money did you get from that video?"
"Uh, it was only about $10,000 from that," the Gideon's Army CEO answered, "and Dontrail got all of that money. He and his mother will verify that."
But NewsChannel 5 reached out to Dontrail, he told us he didn't really know how much the video brought in, that he would have to ask Fetuga.
Efforts to reach his mother were unsuccessful.
Still, four separate sources close to Gideon's Army and Dontrail independently expressed concerns about the lack of transparency.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates turned to the assistant director over the state agency that regulates charities.
"Is it a best practice to do that?"
"No," said Shannon Romain, "I don't think that is a best practice."
Romain said the head of a nonprofit requesting donations through a private account could blur the lines between the two.
"The situation here raises, or could raise, concerns for a donor as to whether or not they are giving it to an individual or giving the donation to a nonprofit," she explained.
Fetuga said that, since she had a personal relationship with Dontrail, she decided to use her personal Cash App.
"People were asking, 'post a Cash App, post a Cash App. We want to donate.' So I put it up there. And he got money, and he got the money. I don't think there is anything wrong with that," she said.
While the past year has brought increased public support for Gideon’s Army, its operations have been unconventional.
A social media post from Gideon's Army's Hambino Godbody back in January — promising “hundred dollar bills will be passed out today” — triggered a chaotic scene with people pushing and shoving for the cash handouts.
“I know it’s a lot of people in their feelings who didn’t get nothing," Godbody later explained on Instagram.
"But y’all got to understand all we had was $15,000.”
Again, Shannon Romain had concerns.
"Direct cash contributions, while easy, could lead to less accountability and make it more difficult for an organization to show that they are using the funds that they receive toward their charitable purpose and that they are not misusing those funds."
Fetuga said the cash was provided by a North Nashville native who just wanted to do something nice for his community
"It was not donated directly to Gideon's Army," she continued.
"The donor came out and gave the money himself. He did it with us. He did it with us, but he did not give us the money."
But that didn't stop Gideon's Army from filing a report with Nashville's Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency (MDHA), claiming it had spent $15,000 on direct assistance to the community.
Discrepancies in tax returns
All of which led NewsChannel 5 Investigates to take a hard look at Gideon's Army's tax returns.
Those tax returns, we discovered, show large amounts of money being wiped off the books - with no real explanation.
For 2019-2020, the group’s tax return shows Gideon’s Army took in almost $1.5 million.
According to the return, Gideon's Army started the year with $95,000, but every penny of that was recorded as investment losses by year’s end.
NewsChannel 5 asked Fetuga, "Did you really lose $95,000?"
"We didn't," she insisted. "It was just a clerical error. It happens."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted that Fetuga had signed the tax return, verifying that it was correct.
"I did, and we went through it, but I didn't catch it," she said.
But after that interview, Fetuga provided NewsChannel 5 with an amended tax return prepared by Gideon's Army auditors.
This one showed an adjustment of more than $170,000 — money just subtracted from the books.
Where did that $170,000 go?
Fetuga ignored repeated phone calls, text messages and emails. Efforts to get answers through the auditors were also unsuccessful.
After asking for weeks, NewsChannel 5 Investigates caught up with Fetuga after a Gideon's Army event in hopes of getting answers.
We asked, "Can you help me understand what happened to the $170,000?"
"I explained it to you," Fetuga claimed.
We continued, "You have not explained it."
"Yes, I did," she insisted, "and that's it."
Does that concern state regulators?
"Here the state would be concerned with whether such an adjustment is simply an accounting error — or if it's a larger issue of how they are using their finances," Romain said.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "With that amount of money, would you think there would be a larger issue?"
"I can't speak with respect to that because, again, we would make the assessment of whether or not it's just an accounting adjustment, but it could be something that we would certainly look into," she added.
We checked, and state regulators said the amended tax return provided to NewsChannel 5 was never provided to their office.
Fetuga has refused to disclose whether she has filed a return for the 2020-2021 year, even though the IRS requires nonprofits to make those returns available to the public.
On top of that, questions were raised by a recent state audit review looking at how Gideon's Army spent almost $1 million from a grant from the Tennessee Department of Human Services.
The group "did not properly document the ... programs and services provided," so auditors could not tell if they had really done the work.
Three years ago, a state criminal justice grant was “terminated effective immediately” after a review found Gideon’s Army had “charged unallowable costs” to the state.
Among the discrepancies: They had “charged the grant for budgeted personnel” in July and the first two weeks of August, even though those people were not even hired until August 15.
"I'm OK with, if mistakes are made, being called out on them and fixing it," Fetuga said in our original interview.
"That's what happens also with fast growth, you know. Mistakes will be made. I don't know a nonprofit that has just not made any mistakes."
Fetuga provided NewsChannel 5 with a recently completed audit, but that audit does not show in detail exactly how that money was spent.
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