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Monday, December 09, 2019

Ferguson Fundraiser Mystery Solved — Or Is It?

By Matt Pearce, Los Angeles Times

Two online fundraising pages that raised more than $400,000 for the police officer who killed an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Mo., were shut down this weekend so tax lawyers could decide how best to handle the money, an official told the Los Angeles Times.

Mystery has surrounded the pages on the crowdsourced fundraising site GoFundMe since Saturday, when both were suspended by their creators without an explanatory note to donors. And some mystery persisted Monday night.

“Support Officer Darren Wilson” and “Support Officer Wilson” — two separate pages with similar names — raised $235,750 and $197,620, respectively, for the Ferguson police officer who shot Michael Brown, 18, on Aug. 9, touching off protests and unrest.

The first page, “Support Officer Darren Wilson,” had raised the most concern because its creator was anonymous and had not received certified status from GoFundMe.

Missouri state Rep. Jeffrey Roorda, a Democrat who is helping to handle Wilson’s fundraising efforts, said the creator of that page is a teenage girl from the St. Louis area.

“I think she thought she’d raise a few hundred dollars, and she ended up raising a few hundred thousand dollars,” Roorda said in a phone interview Monday night. After her page got popular, Roorda said, the young woman started receiving “serious threats.”

Roorda said he doesn’t know how old she is or whether she’s a minor; he described her as a “teenage girl,” a “young girl.”

When The Times relayed Roorda’s story to the anonymous accountholder of the page purportedly created by the girl, however, an unidentified administrator responded: “I can tell you I have not worked with or spoken with Rep. Roorda. The information you have been given is false.”

Roorda replied, “So what part’s false?” adding that he hadn’t personally met the girl but that other police officials had met her to thank her. He guessed that perhaps the page’s creator was trying to protect herself from further threats.

Once again, however, an anonymous administrator denied the story. “We can guarantee you the information is not correct,” a subsequent email said. “We cannot control what you may choose to report/publish but we do want you to know when information is inaccurate. We appreciate your understanding regarding this matter.”

A spokeswoman for GoFundMe had previously told The Times that the service “has been in contact with the campaign organizer and has no reason to question their authenticity,” but added that the page had been stripped from the site’s search results because the creator no longer had a Facebook page attached to the fundraising page.

Also muddying matters in recent days was an anonymously run Facebook page called “Support Darren Wilson,” with more than 77,000 likes.

In status updates over the weekend, the page’s operator had purported to know why the fundraising efforts had been halted but declined to share more information with supporters — some of whom saw their comments deleted after they raised questions about who was handling the money.

At one point, the page exhorted followers to start a petition against the GoFundMe page run by the attorneys for Brown’s family, which had raised $317,143 as of Monday evening.

“It’s a third-party thing,” Roorda said of the Facebook page. “It’s a fellow out of Texas who reached out early on, wanted to know how to help. We told him about the young girl’s charitable efforts, he put the page up, and has promoted those efforts.”

Roorda is vice president of Shield of Hope — the charitable wing of the Fraternal Order of Police union, to which Wilson belongs — as well as a Democratic candidate for state Senate.

(Earlier this year, Roorda sponsored a bill that, in addition to other changes, would have kept the names of officers involved in shootings secret unless they were charged. Roorda told The Times he is no longer pushing for that legislation.)

Roorda said Shield of Hope — whose officers include a spokesman for the Ferguson Police Department and a Florissant city council member — created the second Wilson fundraising page after the girl’s mom asked the union to take over.

That Florissant city council member, Joseph Eagan, said in an email: “My affiliation with the charity has more to do with my work as a police officer than as a councilman. Essentially I believe in due process.” He alluded to an incident in which he’d been shot while on duty.

“The suspect that shot me in the face at point-blank range received due process,” he said. “I think all Americans should.” Eagen added that he would let Roorda speak on behalf of the organization.

Roorda said GoFundMe rules prevent page creators from transferring the administration of donation pages to other users, which is why two pages for Wilson came to exist side by side. Roorda said tax attorneys for the police union were trying to figure out how best to handle the hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions, since donations for legal defenses are apparently not tax-deductible.

“Before this, we were raising hundreds or maybe thousands of dollars to help pay for scholarships for children of cops, to pay for relief when an officer was hurt or killed in the line of duty,” Roorda said of Shield of Hope, which has existed for several years. “The epic proportions of this case is something that I don’t think anything was prepared for or expected.”

After a previous Times story identified Roorda as a member of the Wilson fundraising effort, social media users took note of details about his professional history.

Roorda was fired from the police force of Arnold, a St. Louis exurb, in 2001. His superiors accused him of filing a false statement against a suspect in 1997 and against his own police chief in 2001 when the chief declined to give Roorda paid paternity leave, according to Missouri court records.

The lawmaker told The Times that the 2001 dispute with his boss came after Roorda filed a police report against the chief for violating a restraining order held by the chief’s wife. The city fired the chief not long after, he said.

Roorda later became police chief of Kimmswick, another St. Louis exurb, and a business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers Assn. He now sits on the Missouri House’s public safety committee.

Asked if he had any trepidation at getting involved in the Ferguson affair as a politician running for office, Roorda responded:

“I can tell you that every single voter in my district that I’ve talked to wants to reserve judgment on Officer Wilson and on Michael Brown until the facts are out there. … The people in my district just care about getting the facts and about justice being done.”

AFP Photo/Joshua Lott

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