Welcome to Donnawood

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.

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John W. Allman