Welcome to Donnawood

A west Phoenix neighborhood pays the way for activist Donna Neill to gain control. But who gets stuck with the final bill?

"It's equally interesting that no one questions it."

The lax oversight is due, in part, to Neill's tireless drive, which has been tapped on numerous occasions by city officials.

Together with her husband, Neill has become an active partner with the city in tackling issues of crime and slum housing in the embattled neighborhood between Indian School and Camelback roads, from 19th Avenue to Interstate 17.

Kid Street Park opened in December 2000 after Donna Neill spent nearly six years rallying support and donations for the project.
Kevin Scanlon
Kid Street Park opened in December 2000 after Donna Neill spent nearly six years rallying support and donations for the project.
Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley's office has donated generously to the Westwood cause.
Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley's office has donated generously to the Westwood cause.

The city since the late 1980s has looked to clean up Westwood, but until the last four years had found little success. By combining efforts with activists such as Neill, the city targeted several Westwood properties and forced change through a combination of public exposure and private pressure.

In return, the city bolstered Neill's cottage industry of neighborhood organizations by requiring property owners to pony up more support, publicity and donations to her groups.

Neill seems perplexed that anyone might doubt her good deeds or intentions. She attributes any inquiry to a small band of enemies, people she says likely want to see her efforts fail.

She becomes defensive, sarcastic and ultimately tearful. She denies having done anything wrong, and is even more adamant when asked whether she and her husband are qualified to run a nonprofit organization.

"Maybe should we keep better records? Probably. Is this a good lesson? Probably," Neill says, her voice defiant. "Do we feel we're not qualified? Absolutely not."

Donna Neill has no shortage of people who support her.

Phoenix police officials praise her. State officials say she has put her life on the line to tackle issues of crime, gang violence and drug use in the Westwood neighborhood. Legislators say she has been instrumental in pushing for tougher laws. Contributors who have given her money say they have no doubt she has used every penny to better the neighborhood.

"My trust in Donna is a gut feel. It's one I trust quite a bit. I don't give that trust away easily. I've watched what this woman does," says longtime friend and collaborator Mike Tanner.

"There's no financial reward here. They take dollars out of their own pocket in order to feed these kids, care for these kids and take care of this neighborhood."

Last year, the Westwood community opened a public park, the neighborhood's first, largely because of Donna Neill's insistence that the area's children needed a place to play. She spearheaded the effort to raise money to help pay for the park.

Phoenix City Councilman Phil Gordon was an active supporter of the park, and he has continued to work closely with Neill on other issues.

Gordon is quick to defend Neill when told about the financial inconsistencies and her poor handling of cash donations.

"Does she not document everything? I'm sure she doesn't, like anybody probably misses things," Gordon says. "Did she try to profit for herself? My answer would be no."

Gordon says he has "100 percent" faith in Neill's intentions.

"Sometimes you've got to stand with friends if there are some questions," he says. "I'm standing with Donna."

Gordon has no choice.

He and others -- including Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley and former governor Fife Symington -- have helped finance Neill's ascent to prominence. The City of Phoenix, the County Attorney's Office and the Governor's Office all have donated thousands of dollars in grants to Neill's nonprofit organization.

To doubt her now would invite serious questions, especially when public funds are involved.

The Neills are quick to deflect criticism by saying they are not accountants. They try to pass themselves off as being clueless to federal law, even though they have five years' experience running a nonprofit charity.

When pressed, they blame other people for not telling them that donations and grants had to be reported to the IRS.

One of the people they blame is Jean McDermott, a former friend who helped the Neills by acting as coordinator for the grants received by the Westwood association.

McDermott did a good job. She made sure each of the grants was audited by a private Phoenix accounting firm to show where the money was spent. But McDermott says she was not in charge of the Westwood Community Association's financial records.

It wasn't until recently, she says, that she learned two of the association's tax returns list her as being in charge of the charity's books. She says she never saw the association's financial records.

The job of treasurer instead belonged to Jerry Neill, 58, a warehouse supervisor for Cisco Foods.

The charity's 1997 tax return, which was not filed with the IRS until July 1999, includes a letter from Jerry Neill. In the letter, he says that he had assumed a bookkeeping firm was handling Westwood's financial reports. He apologized and wrote that he would begin preparing the 1998 tax return, which was also overdue.

"There was little activity in 1997-98," Neill wrote. "But grant activity is up again for 1998-1999."

The charity actually received more than $220,000 in state and county grants between July 1, 1998, and June 30, 1999, not including more than $11,000 in private donations.

Jerry Neill has yet to submit a tax return for the 1998 fiscal year.

During an interview on October 18, he admitted the error, saying, "I thought I had filed it."

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