COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost is suing a charity that falsely claimed to be collecting money for East Palestine residents following the Norfolk Southern train derailment in February.
The lawsuit alleges that Mike Peppel presented his Ohio Clean Water Fund as a nonprofit acting on behalf of Second Harvest Food Bank of the Mahoning Valley to provide emergency aid and bottled water.
Instead, Yost claims Peppel and others have pocketed at least $131,000 of the roughly $141,000 raised from more than 3,000 donors.
“The idea that somebody would so brazenly exploit a disaster situation and the good hearts of people who want to help is unconscionable,” Yost said. “I’m mad as hell about this, and we’re going to make sure this sham charity gets shut down.”
Representatives with the food bank complained to Yost’s office that they had not authorized the partnerships cited by Peppel in mass emails and text messages.
Yost says the food bank confronted Peppel twice to tell him to stop advertising the partnership. After being called out, Peppel paid $10,000 to the organization, which is 7% of what he admits to raising.
Yost is seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to stop Peppel’s illegal activity, prohibit him from engaging in additional charitable solicitations and preserve existing charitable assets.
“Here’s a message for anybody else who might hope to profit from the situation in East Palestine: Don’t even think about it,” Yost said.
For those wanting to make a charitable contribution, Yost encourages donors to research charities and follow the steps below to ensure your money is going to a reputable organization:
- Visit the attorney general’s Good Giving Guidelines and Research Charities webpage to check whether charities have complied with registration requirements. Media articles and other postings can also provide useful details about groups, board members and key employees.
- View 990 forms, which most tax-exempt groups must file with the Internal Revenue Service. These forms describe where organizations get their funding and how they spend it.
- Support familiar, established organizations, or, if considering a donation to an unfamiliar group, check its website first. Does the information match what you received when you were asked to contribute? Do the group’s programs and services make sense?
- Talk with friends and family about unfamiliar solicitations. Have they heard of the group? Do they know of anyone who has been assisted by it?
Ohioans who suspect misuse of charitable funds or fraudulent fundraising activities should contact the Ohio Attorney General’s Office at 800-282-0515 or charitable.ohioago.gov.