By Stephen Lemons
By Weston Phippen
By New Times Staff
By Stephen Lemons
By Kathleen Vanesian
By Stephen Lemons
By New Times Staff
By Stephen Lemons
Donna Neill is impossible to miss, and even harder to ignore.
The west Phoenix woman has become a darling of the public access channel. She lectures at local colleges. She pops up at public events, standing shoulder to shoulder with some of the Valley's most powerful politicians. She's considered her own run for public office.
She raises money to feed children. She spends entire days lobbying for neighborhood rights at the state capitol. She coordinates weekly marches to denounce drugs and crime. And she has collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants and private donations to fund community initiatives through three neighborhood organizations she helped create.
For a homemaker with a high school education, Neill has done well for herself. She is a struggling neighborhood's dream resident. Tireless, determined and persistent to the point of being a nuisance, she has put a spotlight on Phoenix's Westwood community unlike any that the densely packed, highly transient neighborhood could have imagined.
But can you trust her?
In recent years, Neill has taken advantage of a neighborhood that desperately needed a leader.
Her fund-raising efforts have routinely violated explicit federal guidelines designed to hold charitable groups accountable. And two of her closest allies have publicly denounced her, saying they are uncomfortable with her integrity and her financial accountability.
During a three-month investigation by New Times into citizen concerns over heavy-handed enforcement by city officials in west Phoenix, Neill's involvement was also impossible to ignore. She emerges as a key player in how the city handles complaints and targets some property owners in her part of west Phoenix. The paper interviewed more than 40 people who have worked with or donated money to Neill and reviewed all available financial documents for the organizations she has created.
Among the findings:
Since 1996, the Westwood Community Association, the only Neill group to seek tax-exempt status, has not reported more than $600,000 in private donations and state, city and county grants, as required by federal law.
In the past five years, the organization did not file tax returns for two years; two other returns are inaccurate and don't reflect all grants and private donations received. Neill and her husband, Jerry, the treasurer, cannot explain numerous questionable entries.
No financial data is available prior to 1996, even though documents show the Westwood Community Association solicited more than $20,000 in donations in 1995, before it was recognized by the Internal Revenue Service.
Since 1996, Neill has actively solicited and received donations for a grassroots group she co-founded called NAILEM, which stands for Neighborhood Activists Inter-Linked Empowerment Movement. But the group is not incorporated and has no bank account. All donations received have gone directly to Donna Neill. And some donations given to the community association have been diverted to NAILEM.
At least twice, Neill has been involved in illegal fund-raising raffles. One raffle was shut down by the state Attorney General's Office, but a few months later Neill accepted at least $1,000 in proceeds from another illegal raffle.
Many events that Neill raises money for are actually paid for by other people. For instance, Neill has raised more than $15,000 to pay for food and gifts for a pet children's project, Kid Street, and its annual Christmas party. However, at least three other businesses say they paid for a large portion of the food. Neill can't document where she spent the money she raised.
There is no evidence that Neill, 55, has pocketed large amounts of cash. She is far from a Keating or a Milken. She says her family survives on the sole paycheck brought in by her husband. But she can't show where tens of thousands of dollars in private donations have been spent.
All state and city grants received by her community association were closely monitored by the agencies awarding the grants. None of that money, which represents a large bulk of Neill's total revenue, appears to have been misspent.
But when it comes to private donations, few are documented. The more people New Times spoke to, the more people the newspaper came across who have given money to her organizations. These are people who have given from $5 to $5,000, residents and business owners who thought they were helping a community change.
John Augustyn spent a year working with Neill when he served as executive director of Community Covenant Corporation No. 1, a nonprofit agency created by the City of Phoenix to rehabilitate the Westwood neighborhood.
Augustyn says he saw troubling signs that Neill had too much power and too little knowledge about how to use it. Neill often showed him checks written by businesses donating money to her community association. He says he never saw receipts of how the money was used.
"I strongly suspected there was some unethical handling of finances going on with that organization," says Augustyn, who spent 24 years with the Phoenix Police Department. "I did not want to have my integrity impugned by having an association with her."
Augustyn resigned his position in November 2000 primarily, he says, because Neill was too difficult to work with.
"She has no experience in management of a nonprofit," he says. "She has not to my knowledge taken any courses to learn more about how to run a nonprofit. She is essentially not qualified to run an organization that handles this kind of budget nor does she have an infrastructure to handle it.
"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.
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 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."
The first thing you notice about Donna Neill is her height.
She is not a small woman. She stands nearly 5-foot-11 with a shock of red curly hair.
Her penchant for fashion could be called garish if it didn't fit her personality. Nearly every inch of clothing is adorned by some accessory, whether it's the American flag tie-tack on her red pinstripe tie, the Uncle Sam emblem stitched on her denim shirt, the tiny flags on her red loafers or the phalanx of police pins on her lapel.
Her fashion sense mirrors her decorating taste, which is a mixture of clutter, nostalgia and kitsch. Her house, a modest brick home built in 1956, is filled with eclectic treasures. The kitchen has a dining booth and soda fountain from Denny's, a vintage 1947 refrigerator and a giant gumball machine. One bathroom is adorned entirely with Elvis Presley memorabilia.
Neill is a simple woman who prefers thrift-store clothes and cheap collectibles best found at flea markets.
Born in Denver, Neill worked for a community college in Colorado while raising two daughters and a son from her first marriage. She took classes in business administration, but never received a degree. In 1976, she married Jerry Neill, whose job with Cisco Foods took them first to New Mexico and then, in 1989, to Scottsdale.
Times weren't easy. Donna Neill worked as an operations manager for a toy manufacturer. Jerry Neill suffered health problems. One of her daughters, born with disabilities, died. Donna Neill stopped working, needing some time to heal.
The couple moved to central Phoenix in 1993.
What they found in Westwood was a neighborhood struggling not to implode. Crime and gang activity were rampant. Neighborhood children lived hand to mouth, their families often moving shortly after finding one of the countless cheap apartments for rent. Graffiti covered most open wall space.
Neill says she saw it as her duty to get involved.
"I think it's all of our jobs to give something back, each one of us," she says.
Especially where children are concerned.
If there is one area that Neill returns to time and again, it is children. She talks about helping children, feeding children, hugging children, educating children.
"I think people don't understand any of this if they've never done it," she says.
One of her first tasks was to get organized.
Neill created the Westwood Community Association in 1994. She documented neighborhood needs and began visiting local businesses to garner support. Neill eventually landed on the doorstep of two car dealers, Rusty Childress and Mike Tanner, whose family owned the Volvo dealership next to Childress' Buick dealership. The Volvo dealership has since been sold and Tanner now operates Tanner Luxury Collision on North 22nd Drive.
"She's very persistent. [It] wasn't just one stop, one visit. She kept coming back over and over again," Tanner says. "She not only got our attention. She held our attention."
And she made both men partners, for better or worse, in all that lay ahead.
By September 1994, Childress and Tanner had helped Neill create a second organization, the Westwood Business Alliance.
In February 1995, the business alliance sponsored a bus tour of Westwood to show business owners and city, county and state officials the places where graffiti marred walls, the alleyways where homeless people slept and drug dealers conducted business, the state of disrepair present at many apartment complexes.
"It was a real eye-opener to a lot of people, including myself," Tanner says. "It showed people what the real problems were, and they weren't easy-fix solutions."
The business alliance, according to Childress, was a shrewd move. Involving businesses, particularly car dealerships, which typically bolster city sales tax revenue, gave Neill a way to capture the interest of city officials.
"People will listen to her. She can get in to see people. She has made a name for herself," Childress says.
He concedes that Neill can be overly assertive at times.
"If you agree with her opinion, she's the greatest thing since sliced bread," Childress says. "I try not to take a position with Donna of agreeing or disagreeing. She's a person I respect to the extent I'll give her the leeway of having an opinion."
The alliance also gave Neill a direct line to people with money.
The business alliance is not incorporated. It has a president and vice president, but no formal board. It has no checking account. It does not solicit donations, according to Childress and Tanner, although Neill does use monthly meetings to update guests about issues facing the neighborhood and ask for donations.
What began with five to 10 people gathering in 1994 now boasts attendance between 25 and 50 people, according to Tanner. The meeting is held the last Wednesday of each month at Childress' auto dealership.
"I think the business alliance is a good steering mechanism," Tanner says. "But the main force behind the business alliance . . . I think it's Donna. It was her brain child, her motivation. Had Donna not been pushing Rusty and I, I'm not sure it would have happened."
Minutes of the alliance meetings show Neill's presentation to be a run-down of ongoing neighborhood events, donations received and, in some cases, a plea for money.
At the February 2000 meeting, for instance, Neill talked about bills moving through the state Legislature; she spoke about an upcoming meeting with County Attorney Romley; she alerted people to a memorial service for a state Department of Public Service officer; and she asked for money to fund activities sponsored by the Westwood Community Association.
Neill said at the meeting she had received $500 from a local mechanic. Some of that money was donated directly to Donna and Jerry Neill to cover "operating expenses," according to the meeting minutes.
There is no record of the donation, as the community association did not file a tax return for the year 2000. However, none of the tax returns previously submitted to the IRS list any "operating expenses" incurred.
Donna Neill, during an interview with New Times, says that there are times when her organization receives money meant for its general fund. That includes donations to the Westwood Community Association that are not earmarked for a specific cause. Some of those funds, she says, have been used to pay for events other than those promoted by the community association.
In those cases, Neill says, the four-member community association board decides how to spend the money.
Former board members, however, admit limited involvement in deciding how the charity conducts its business.
"I just took the minutes. I didn't express opinions," says former Westwood secretary Shirley Wilson, who spent a year on the board. "The only input that I had was to say, 'Wait a minute. We need to know who made the motion, who seconded the motion.'"
With the Westwood Business Alliance thriving, Neill was able to focus on what she considered a main objective in her community: the creation of a neighborhood park.
The idea began in 1994 when Neill first started working with Childress and Tanner. She showed them statistics for the neighborhood -- the number of rental properties compared to owner-occupied homes, the number of children attending Westwood Primary School, the number of families who didn't own a vehicle and could not walk to other city parks in adjacent neighborhoods.
By year's end, the three had created a memorial fund to accept donations to build a community park in honor of Kon Hawk, a neighborhood convenience store clerk slain during a robbery.
While Neill says today that the memorial fund never generated any donations, documents show that at least $8,000 was raised. Neill disputes that any money was raised, and financial records do not reflect the money ever being reported.
Tanner says the three eventually approached the city for help.
"When we first went, [we were] basically told, 'There's a lot of neighborhoods that want a park. Get in line,'" Tanner says.
By 1996, the city agreed to buy a piece of overgrown property on 23rd Avenue between Indian School and Camelback. The land, which sat directly across from Sundowner Apartments, held farm animals and an old still.
With the land locked up, the next step was to develop it.
In 1997, when Phil Gordon was considering a run for the soon-to-be-vacated City Council District 4 seat, he met with Neill.
She told him about her dream for a park, Gordon says. He promised to help make it happen.
"I said, 'I will make that my top priority,'" Gordon recalls telling Neill. "I felt that was important we do that."
The city eventually put the burden of fund raising on Neill and her partners, however.
Tanner says his family business pitched in several donations of more than $1,000, as well as one significant gift of $10,000. Other residents assisted, including Westwood resident Ralph Breninger, who says he gave $5,000.
Breninger's donation, however, is listed on Westwood's 1999 tax return as being $11,105. Jerry Neill attributes the accounting error to a computer glitch, which he says wiped out some of the charity's financial records. Jerry Neill admits that Breninger did not give $11,105; he says the bulk of that money came from Mike Tanner, although records do not reflect that.
As donations came in for the park, Neill began pushing to build a community center. The center, she says, will be named after slain Phoenix police officer Marc Atkinson, who was killed in 1999 as he pursued suspected drug dealers.
Gordon says he pitched Neill's idea to Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, as well as the police.
The police department and the County Attorney's Office offered donations of $7,500 and $20,000, respectively, to aid creation of the Atkinson center.
It was one of three donations Neill has received from Romley's office.
"She has become an ally," Romley says. "Some elected officials fail to understand the importance of issues to the community. She takes it to them. She expresses exactly what is going on in their neighborhoods."
Romley says Neill is persuasive because she is passionate about the causes she champions.
"Everybody ruffles feathers. She seems to be able to get away with it a little more because of her sincerity," he says, "her passion."
Of the three donations from Romley's office to Neill's organization, only one -- the $20,000 parks donation -- was reported to the IRS. Two other grants for $5,000 and $10,000 do not appear on any Westwood financial statement.
By May 2000, the Westwood Community Association had raised $55,100. The association contributed $23,939 to help build the park with the remaining $31,161 earmarked for the Atkinson center.
The donations were raised between April 1997 and April 2000. All the money was kept in a private, interest-bearing account, according to Westwood's 1999 tax return. The interest raised totaled $1,687.
When the donations were given to the Park Foundation of Phoenix, Neill's organization kept $954. Neither Donna nor Jerry Neill could initially explain why the charity kept the money. Later, they say it was meant to sustain a floating fund for other expenses, but financial records do not show the money being used for charity events.
Kid Street Park opened in December 2000. The community center has been designed and a groundbreaking was expected in October. That groundbreaking has yet to occur.
Kid Street Park is a source of immense pride for Neill.
She beams upon entering the gate, staring at the park.
She talks about the children who flock to play there daily, the families who fill the grassy slopes on weeknights.
The park is a direct offshoot of an event Neill started in 1995 called Kid Street, the same event that would many years later be the inspiration for naming the park.
Kid Street evolved during a meeting between Neill, school officials at Simpson and Westwood elementary schools and Lisa Hubbard, a neighborhood specialist assigned by the city to assist the Westwood neighborhood.
Hubbard remembers a woman from the Simpson school talking about growing up in Chicago, how a neighborhood street was blocked off to allow inner-city children a chance to play without fear of traffic or distraction. Neill keyed on the idea and soon met with city Parks and Recreation officials and members of the transportation department. A city grant paid for staff time to allow parks officials to supervise the children playing. In 1996, a Neighborhood Block Watch grant from the police department provided more than $9,000 for equipment, portable rest rooms and a computer to allow Neill to create and distribute information about the event.
The event ran every Saturday between October and April. City officials blocked off Pierson Street, a stretch of asphalt just south of Camelback Road. Neill brought food and drink.
Neill varies on how much it costs to feed the children at Kid Street.
In the 1996 Block Watch grant, she listed the cost at $3,900. During an interview with New Times, she placed the cost at $175 to $200 a week, or about $4,900 to $5,600 a year.
Each year, the Westwood Community Association sponsors a Christmas party, which she says costs considerably more because it has grown to include more than 300 people. The spaghetti dinner served at the Christmas party, she says, costs about $1,000 alone.
But Neill has had help putting food on the table. She has continued to ask for money to pay for food and supplies that other businesses are providing free of charge.
Since 1998, Neill has solicited more than $15,000 to feed children at Kid Street and to host the annual Christmas party.
In 1998, she received $10,000 from PriceRite Foods, a grocery store that opened and later closed at 19th Avenue and Indian School. She has received at least two $1,000 donations from Le Girls, an adult cabaret near downtown. She received donations of $2,000 from two local convenience stores and gas stations in Westwood.
None of these donations appear on any Westwood financial statement and were never reported to the IRS. There is no way, other than Neill's word, to document that the money was spent on Kid Street.
According to the Reverend Gale Watkins, his congregation at Westminster Presbyterian Church has provided free food and workers for at least four years on the third Saturday of every month that Kid Street is in operation.
Mike Tanner says that for at least two years his business paid for food used two Saturdays a month. Even Childress says he's bought food for Kid Street when asked by Neill.
So what is Donna Neill doing with the money she says she's raising for Kid Street?
Neill says that anyone who has given money to Kid Street knows where the money is going, even if the donations are not documented.
How do they know? "By what I do and my reputation of doing it," she says.
Augustyn, the former police officer who cut ties with Neill, doesn't buy it.
"In terms of her fund raising, she raises a lot of money. But I was there a year and I saw very little of the money she actually got going to the causes she brought up," he says.
"Feeding the kids on Kid Street? I saw a lot of money donated to that cause. I would like to see some receipts or something where money actually went to the organization. Part of the reason I felt deceived, Donna talked about the kids, the kids, the kids. When I got there, I didn't see the kids getting that much."
In addition to the Westwood Community Association and the Westwood Business Alliance, Neill also co-founded a third group in 1996 to address neighborhood issues statewide.
NAILEM was an effort to bring neighborhoods together from across Phoenix and the state. It was meant to give residents of different legislative districts a singular voice that would be heard by a number of elected officials.
Childress, who brainstormed the concept of NAILEM with Neill and Paul Enniss, a community activist in the Simpson neighborhood, wanted to recruit someone who could figure out how to "work the system" at the state capitol, to address larger issues than just slumlords and crime. He didn't want the job, but he agreed to sponsor whoever took up the cause.
Neill and Enniss are credited as being co-founders. They benefited from Childress' help as he set up a phone line at his car dealership to take incoming calls. He provided office space at his dealership and gave Neill access to e-mail.
"At some point, you can't just be a community association and try to change state law," Childress says.
As an organization, NAILEM was loosely constructed on purpose, according to Enniss. It did not have a checking account and was not incorporated to avoid having to register as a 501(c)3 organization, which by law is restricted from lobbying.
"The thing we did not do is set up any bylaws, which in retrospect was a mistake," Enniss says. "Anybody who ever called NAILEM or came to one of our marches is by default a NAILEM member. There was no bylaws to stop any one person from going out and claiming to speak for NAILEM."
Neill and Enniss, through NAILEM, assumed control of weekly drug and crime marches in 1996, organized on Saturday nights in various city neighborhoods. At first, according to Enniss, as many as 50 to 100 people would turn out. Over time, that number dropped significantly. By the time he left the organization, "if we got a dozen, that was a good crowd."
NAILEM also rarely asked for donations. Enniss says he can remember just one time when people were asked to contribute, and that donation was to buy stamps. "It was somewhere around $40, I think," he says of the funds collected.
But Neill was asking for money.
"She said there was no bank account. It would have to be made out to her," Straughn says of the checks he wrote to Neill.
While he can't remember specific amounts, Straughn says he and Rolse gave Neill several hundred dollars. When told there is no record of their donation, Straughn shrugs it off.
"We don't donate money unless we're willing to give it away. We didn't continue to donate money because there was no organization," he says. "I really don't know that she didn't use it for NAILEM."
If she did use the money for NAILEM, she never told Enniss. "I never knew about it until they [Straughn and Rolse] told me much later," he says.
Neill can't recall donations from Straughn and Rolse.
"They might have [contributed]," she says.
Within a year of its creation, NAILEM was an active player at the state Legislature.
Neill and Enniss lobbied for several neighborhood bills that eventually passed into law.
State Senator Chris Cummiskey, a Democrat who represents the Westwood area, became a supporter as NAILEM evolved.
"What I was able to witness was Donna going from a stray bomb thrower to a more seasoned advocate for neighborhoods," the senator says. "Not just on the west side, but neighborhoods throughout the state."
Cummiskey credits Neill with taking the point position, but he says that NAILEM encompasses many people. And, he says, it now commands respect from House and Senate members.
"They know NAILEM has grown to be a viable organization and one that can't be ignored," he says.
What they don't know is that NAILEM may really just be Donna Neill. New Times could not find anyone else who is a member even though the NAILEM Web site claims membership to be more than 400 people. In an interview, Neill said that e-mails from NAILEM reach about 35,000 people statewide. Yet no one interviewed by New Times, including city and state officials, can name another NAILEM member besides Neill. Even Neill, during an interview, is unable to name specific NAILEM members.
Still, as NAILEM gained recognition, Neill came in contact with more people, and she solicited more help.
The Westwood Community Association, as well as Enniss' Simpson neighborhood, benefited through a series of state grants received from then-governor Symington's office. The grants allowed for education and assistance to area schools.
In Westwood, the bulk of the money went toward programs at Westwood Primary School, which houses kindergarten through third grade students.
"They were very helpful in providing us with resources for parents. Counseling was a big part of it," says Principal Mara Wayland, who first met Neill in 1996. "We have a counselor, but when you have 1,250 children with numerous needs . . . truly, it was a very great resource for us. One counselor can't provide all that was needed that this grant did."
All told, Neill and Enniss' neighborhoods received roughly $788,492 in state grants between 1996 and October 1999. However, only a fraction of the grant dollars received -- $192,978 -- were reported by the Westwood Community Association to the IRS.
Donna and Jerry Neill say they were never told to report state grants.
By 1999, as Neill was becoming more of a presence at the capitol, Enniss and Neill's relationship was deteriorating. The two rarely spoke, and he was not included in brainstorming new NAILEM activities.
"I began getting calls from neighborhood leaders asking why NAILEM was supporting this issue, supporting that issue," Enniss says. "The calls from the neighborhoods really made me realize that organized neighborhoods were not being consulted."
Enniss saw baffling events unfold, such as a March 2000 raffle to help finance NAILEM.
The raffle was sponsored by Childress and Tanner. Neill sent out an e-mail announcing the raffle. Tickets were $1 each with special incentives for anyone buying 10 or more. Proceeds would go directly to NAILEM to cover the cost of "many projects" such as police memorials, legislative efforts, Web site maintenance and "basic operation expenses."
All checks were to be made payable to Donna Neill. Prizes, including a $700 motorbike from Childress and an auto detailing package from Tanner, would be handed out at a business alliance meeting.
In April, Donna Neill sent out a second e-mail concerning the raffle: "Someone reported us to the Arizona State Attorney General for conducting a raffle without a license," she wrote.
State law requires any organization wishing to conduct a raffle to register with the AG's Office. Businesses conducting illegal raffles have been prosecuted, including a recent case in Tucson that resulted in a $20,000 settlement payment to the state.
On May 12, 2000, Neill wrote a letter to the special investigator assigned to the NAILEM raffle. "Per your instruction, all monies collected on the raffle for NAILEM have been returned to those who bought tickets," she wrote, adding that the board would register with the AG's Office so it could hold future raffles.
The Attorney General's Office does not discuss specific complaints. But, as of October 2001, records show that no registration has been filed.
In November 2000, Enniss sent a letter to the Phoenix City Council announcing his separation from NAILEM and from Neill. The letter contained disturbing allegations.
Enniss told the council Neill was deceiving people by promoting NAILEM as a statewide coalition of concerned residents working to empower themselves. In fact, he wrote, the organization had one sole voice: Neill. He hinted, but did not elaborate, about possible impropriety, referencing "unethical concealed financial practices" that "may have also been attempted or undertaken."
Neill threatened legal action if Enniss did not retract his letter. He didn't, but Neill never filed a lawsuit.
The city, according to Councilman Gordon, investigated Enniss' claims but found no evidence of wrongdoing on Neill's part.
Enniss declines to discuss his specific reasons for publicly denouncing Neill. He also declines to address his claim that money might have been misappropriated.
"In retrospect, I wish I had been a little more politically correct, but I also felt a need to make sure that people were aware I had broken away completely," he says, "that I was not supportive."
After eight years in Westwood, Neill's energy level remains high and her Midas touch for fund raising is still strong.
Last December, seven months after the investigation into the NAILEM raffle, a second raffle was held to benefit Neill. This time, the sponsoring business was Kelly Clark Automotive Specialists, which has a store on North 19th Avenue.
The business had helped Neill on previous occasions by hosting car shows and giving Neill the proceeds raised by selling donated food, according to store manager Ed Rauch.
"We've had two or three shows," Rauch says. "I'm sure we've done well over $1,500 to $2,000."
The December raffle offered contestants a $500 shopping spree. Lynette Sadler, marketing manager for Kelly Clark Automotive, estimates that the raffle raised another $1,000 for Neill.
According to the Attorney General's Office, Kelly Clark Automotive never registered with the state to obtain a license to hold a raffle. No complaints were filed, however, and the raffle took place as planned.
The shopping spree definitely came after Neill was aware of state regulations. Yet Neill never mentioned this to Sadler, or asked whether the business had taken the proper steps to solicit money.
"They had been doing these raffles for years," Neill told New Times last month. "I probably didn't even think about it."
A review of Westwood's financial records since 1996 shows no donations listed as being received from Kelly Clark.
Neill says she's now soliciting donations for the 2001 Christmas party at Kids Street Park, as well as gifts for other causes.
The most recent, sizable contribution came this past summer from a used car dealership, which said it was interested in moving to the Westwood neighborhood. The dealership, Neill says, gave her $5,000, which she plans to use to buy school clothes for needy children.
The money is still sitting in Westwood's bank account, according to Neill, even though the school year began in August.
Such is the case with nearly all the private money Neill has received: Few of the donations can be traced. She either hasn't spent the money, or never documented what it was spent on.
On November 1, two weeks after being interviewed, Donna Neill called New Times.
She wanted the newspaper to know that all of Westwood's tax returns were being resubmitted with amended information to reflect all donations and grants received.
She apologized for being defensive during previous meetings, saying she had an inner ear infection at the time. And she thanked the newspaper for pointing out her organization's spotty bookkeeping.
An accountant is now handling the federal tax forms, according to Neill. She said the updated paperwork wasn't available yet because the accountant was trying to determine why so little of the money had been reported.
Regardless, Neill says she and her husband are now relying on professionals to keep their records up to date.
The reason, she says, is simple: "We're not professional at anything."
Next: Phoenix officials overstep their authority in trying to revive Westwood.
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