A newspaper investigation has raised questions about the operations of a charity formed to help people affected by Superstorm Sandy.
The Asbury Park Press reports the Hurricane Sandy Relief Foundation has raised $1 million, but has distributed few funds so far. The report also notes the charity presents itself as a tax-exempt organization, which it is not, and also is not registered in New Jersey to operate as a charity.
The charity, run by a Sparta couple, solicits funds on its website (www.sandyrelief.org) using a name similar to a legally registered charity headed by New Jersey first lady Mary Pat Christie, the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund. State law prohibits such practices.
John Sandberg and his girlfriend, Christina Terraccino, run the foundation. They filed paperwork to incorporate the foundation as a New Jersey nonprofit corporation on Oct. 30, the day after Sandy battered the region with surging flood waters and powerful winds.
During its investigation, the newspaper learned that while Sandberg's online resume says he received a bachelor's degree from Seton Hall University, officials there say he attended the school but did not graduate. And two of the corporate "sponsors" cited on the charity's website say they aren't sponsoring the foundation.
Sandberg, a 30-year-old real estate salesman, says he began laying the groundwork for the foundation with his 27-year-old accountant girlfriend and a few friends days before the storm reached New Jersey. He says the group is experiencing some growing pains but is operating above board.
Sandberg said the foundation has a backlog of several hundred aid applicants. He estimated that everyone on the waiting list who qualifies for aid would receive gift cards within 30 days.
When asked about the charity's claim that it's a tax-exempt organization, the co-founders say tax exemptions can be applied retroactively once they secure nonprofit status, and Sandberg added that he registered the domain names when setting up the foundation.
"If you really want to get into it, technically she copied me," he said referring to Mary Pat Christie and her Sandy relief charity.
Through a spokeswoman, Mary Pat Christie's charity declined comment to the newspaper, other to say it is not affiliated with Sandberg's foundation.
Melanie Swift, a nonprofit expert who is assisting the foundation with its IRS application, told the newspaper that she urged the founders to remove the tax-exempt claim on its site weeks ago. She said that "technically" the charity cannot fund raise in New Jersey — or in any other state — without being licensed in those states.
The newspaper says Sandberg initially agreed to provide the group's bank statements, but then canceled the appointment.
Middletown resident Michael Armstrong said he has benefited from the foundation. A few weeks after contacting the group, Armstrong told the newspaper that he received two Lowes gift cards totaling $500.
"They were gracious enough to stop in the Highlands and they checked everything out and they gave us gift cards," Armstrong said.