Stories written by Jo Ciavaglia, award-winning multimedia newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa.
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A charity connected with a suspended Lower Southampton deputy constable and a former Lower Southampton public safety director who were indicted on money laundering charges has been ordered to stop accepting donations after the state determined that it was improperly registered.
The order issued on Aug. 30 bars the H.O.P.E. for Single Parents and Families -- an organization that lists Bernard Rafferty, 62,the suspended deputy constable from Lower Southampton, as a co-founder -- from soliciting contributions in the state until it provides the Bureau of Corporations and Charitable Organizations with “all previously requested information and duly registers” or provides proof that it is exempt from registration because its income is less than $25,000 a year.
The order did not state what information was previously requested.
Department of State spokeswoman Wanda Murren declined to comment further on either H.O.P.E. or another Rafferty-founded charity, Your Giving Hands, which merged with H.O.P.E. in 2012. She said the charities may not have to register if they provide proof that they meet certain criteria for exemption, but that department officials had not received this proof by Aug. 30, when they issued the cease-and-desist order. The order is still in place as of Monday afternoon, Murren confirmed.
The cease and desist order was mailed to Tullytown and Feasterville addresses associated with co-founder, CEO and President Kelly Harold. The nonprofit’s website lists the former Doylestown Township law office of Robert Hoopes, the former Lower Southampton public safety director, as its headquarters and the location where donations could be mailed or dropped off.
H.O.P.E.-Your Giving Hands, as it is identified in the order, was one of 14 organizations the state charities bureau took action against in August, according to a news release. It is one of three organizations that receiveda cease and desist order and could face civil fines and fees if it continues fundraising.
Bernard Rafferty and HOPE co=founder Kelly Harold
Murren added that before the state issues a cease and desist order it would attempt to assist an unregistered organization to bring it into compliance with the registration law.
Hoopes, Rafferty and then-Lower Southampton District Judge John Waltman were indicted in December 2016 on federal charges of conspiracy and money laundering. The trial for the men is scheduled to take place this month in U.S. District Court. This news organization was unsuccessful in reaching Hoopes; Hoopes’ attorney, Megan Scheib; Rafferty; or Rafferty’s attorney, Brian Puricelli for comment.
The cease and desist order was issued three months after this news organization published an investigation into the charities following the arrests. The investigation found that neither organization or the merged charity has been designated as afederally recognized nonprofit, which allows donors to make tax-deductible donations and frees organizations from paying state and federal taxes on any money collected or anything they buy, nor have theyfiled state or federal financial disclosure documents showing how much money was collected and distributed annually.
But the charities did collect money. Your Giving Hands received at least one $500 donation and H.O.P.E. received at least $1,500 in donations -- including $1,100 in “community grants” from the Feasterville Business Association -- in 2012 and 2013, according to H.O.P.E.’s website, Lower Southampton supervisor meeting minutes and interviews with donors and others familiar with the organization.
The findings brought the charities to the attention of Bucks County Consumer Protection Director Michael Bannon, who filed a complaint with the state Bureau of Corporations and Charitable Organizations. Bannon said last week that he was pleased the state looked into the groups’ practices and took action.
In response to Facebook messages sent Thursday and Friday seeking comment, Harold said she filed forms with the state confirming the nonprofit had not been active since August 2013.
Harold has described H.O.P.E. as a transitional housing program for middle and working-class families, but said it “never received any donations.” A planned 2013 fundraiser to raffle off a car was canceled and the money collected returned to ticket-buyers, she said.
“We were not active long at all,” she said.
Harold also said that she has not spoken to Rafferty in years and his involvement with the nonprofit took place “way before he got into any trouble.”
Rafferty was named executive vice president of H.O.P.E.in July 2012, according to the H.O.P.E. website. Previously, Harold said that Rafferty became part of the organization because he had “connections.”
Before he joined H.O.P.E., Rafferty registered Your Giving Hands as a nonprofit corporation with the Pennsylvania Department of State on Dec. 31, 2009; the nonprofit is still listed as active, according to the state agency’s website. Its headquarters is listed as a Lower Southampton gas station, according to copies of the filing documents.
Your Giving Hands had a website that was active in September 2011, according to the internet archive the Way Back Machine. It described nonprofit as providing a “helping hand to people in need within our community,” and listed Rafferty as its contact.
It is unknown exactly how much either charity raised since neither filed financial disclosure statements required by the Internal Revenue Service for charities. At least nine events billed as fundraisers to benefit H.O.P.E. were held in 2012 and 2013 and multiple Facebook posts -- before the page was removed -- also solicited client applications and business affiliates and sponsors for its program through 2014.
The former treasurer for H.O.P.E., Tim Doyle, declined to answer questions, saying he had not been with the organization “for years.”
A lawyer representing a New Jersey man in a federal class action suit against Bucks County and its prison believes a mugshot could be worth nearly $700 million.
A U.S. District Court judge gets the final say on whether Daryoush Taha, 46, of Sicklerville, and possibly others, are awarded as little as $1,000 or as much as $680 million in what one Temple University law professor called a precedent-setting class action suit.
“It’s a very novel case,” said attorney Jonathan Shub, who is representing Taha, the lead plaintiff in the suit. “This statute has never been tested.”
Taha sued the county four years ago, alleging it violated his civil rights when it included on its online inmate lookup tool his mugshot and other information from a 1998 arrest in Bensalem on charges of harassment, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
Taha was accepted into a one-year trial diversion probation program for non-violent first offenders, which he completed, and his arrest information was ordered expunged in January 2000.
Bucks County created its electronic inmate lookup search tool in January 2011 and later that year, Taha claims he learned his arrest information and mugshot were still listed on the site, according to the suit. The county removed all inmate mugshots and most arrest information from the website in June 2013, as a result of Taha’s lawsuit.
Last year a U.S. District Court judge found that the county violated the Pennsylvania Criminal History Record Information Act, known as CHRIA, when it disseminated Taha’s arrest information and mug shot. The law prohibits the dissemination of a person’s criminal history record to anyone outside law enforcement when the person hadn’t been convicted of the crime.
The judge also granted Taha’s motion to certify his case as a class action suit, which opened the possibility of 68,000 class members -- other individuals whose criminal history record information was made available on the county prison’s inmate look up tool before it was revamped, Shub said.
The county appealed the class action certification to the Third Circuit Court, which in August issued a decision upholding the class action status. As a class action suit, any punitive damage award would be divided among all the members of the class action and its attorneys.
Philadelphia attorney Burt Rublin, who is representing the county, declined to comment, saying county officials did not authorize him to speak about the case.
If the court decides the county “willfully” violated the statute, the punitive award is $1,000 to $10,000 per violation, under the law.
“We think we can prove willfulness and each posting of another name is a willful violation,” Shub added. “Bucks County faces a serious predicament.”
But Ken Jacobsen, a Temple University law professor, has doubts. He has specialized in class action suits for 30 years.
While the court found Bucks County violated CHRIA -- which entitles Taha and the class members to punitive damages -- it did not award Taha actual damages because he did not contend that he suffered any economic losses as a result of his arrest information being posted online. If the case goes to trial, it’s possible a jury could find Taha isn’t entitled to punitive damages, which are typically seen as a secondary punishment to deter egregious conduct, Jacobsen said.
Another crucial factor will be how the court defines willful conduct, Jacobsen said: Is it simply the act of putting the arrest information online, or does there need to be evidence the county intended to humiliate and harm individuals when it put the information online?
Even if the court determines the county willfully violated the law, the bigger unknown is what the court determines is a violation.
Bucks County contends in court documents the posting of the 68,000 individuals constitutes a single violation, meaning the damage award would be between $1,000 and $10,000. Shub believes each individual posting is a violation, upping the potential damage award to $68 million to $680 million.
But since Taha couldn’t prove he suffered actual damages, it’s less likely that other members of the class can prove damages, too, Jacobsen said.
“Unless there is some statutory minimum without proof of harm, it’s going to be interesting to see how damages are proved for these 60,000 other people,” Jacobsen said. “It’s an interesting case.”
After Richard Griffin stole an SUV that was left idling in the parking lot of a Bristol Township convenience store, he quickly learned an 11-year-old passenger was in the backseat.
Once the boy made his presence known, Griffin pulled over and let him out before driving away, according to court records in the 2009 crime.
The boy wasn’t hurt. Griffin was arrested and later pleaded guilty in Bucks County Court to charges including theft, receiving stolen property and interference with custody of children.
The custody offense is the only reason the Philadelphia man is a registered sex offender in Pennsylvania.
Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-12, of Upper Moreland -- who led the Senate effort to adopt Megan’s Law in 1996 -- believes offenders like Griffin don’t belong on the state’s sex offender registry.
The lawmaker has introduced legislation that would remove interference with custody of children as an offense requiring sex offender registration under the state’s Megan’s Law, which carries repercussions including loss of personal freedom and loss of privacy. It can also lead to a person being socially ostracized.
“I thought that was the most logical thing to do. The most clear thing to do,” Greenleaf said Wednesday. “I want to make sure no one ever has that quandary to deal with again.”
Greenleaf previously cited this news organization’s July 23 investigation, which found at least 34 Pennsylvania residents with no known record of sexual crimes are listed as sex offenders on the state’s Megan’s Law registry as the catalyst for his proposed legislation. Those offenders account for at least 75 percent of those on the registry for interference with custody of children, a felony that carries an automatic 15-year registration obligation in the state.
At least one-quarter of those 34 registered sex offenders with no sex crime record are noncustodial parents convicted of violating a court order or otherwise improperly taking their own children, according to this news organization’s investigation. Other offenders were convicted of interference with child custody for crimes such as stealing a car with a child passenger, like Griffin, 36, who declined comment when reached recently.
Senate Bill 854, which was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee Greenleaf chairs, would correct an “unintended consequence” of the state’s 2011 update of the sex offender registration law that added interference with custody of children to the list of offenses requiring registration; the only other state where a custody crime conviction requires registration is Louisiana, but its law exempts the parents of a victim child.
Pennsylvania’s law, which took effect in December 2012, has no parental exemption, though one was included in the original state Senate version of the bill adopting the federal Adam Walsh Act, according to Greenleaf and Senate records. But the bill underwent extensive changes in the House and the exemption was removed from the version that received unanimous approval in the House and Senate.
Steve Miskin, a spokesman for the House Judiciary Committee, which removed the original Senate parent exemption, previously indicated that it also plans to review “a number of topics” under Megan’s law including interference with custody of children. This news organization was unsuccessful in reaching Miskin Wednesday for comment.
Removing interference with custody of children from the list requiring sex offender registration is a good first step, said Aaron Marcus, an attorney with the Defenders Association of Philadelphia who has handled at least a dozen cases involving people forced to register as sex offenders for custody crime convictions.
“I am pleased to see the Senate remove this offense, which has caused a large number of people irreparable harm, but this legislation is not a solution,” Marcus said. “I believe much more action is needed to address the outrageous conditions imposed upon thousands of Pennsylvanians who have served their sentence and pose no continuing danger to the community.”
It remains unclear how the bill, if it were signed into law, would impact individuals currently on the registry for custody crimes. Generally criminal laws do not operate retroactively, according to Patrick Crawley, counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which helped draft the bill.
“But as a constitutional matter, the courts may see this as something that must work retroactively,” he said.
Marcus, of the Defenders Association, added the law could be applied to offenders on the registry since interference with custody would no longer be considered a “sexually violent offense” under the law. “Basically, I think the legislation would apply retroactively and those who are registering for interference should be removed,” he added.
Lehigh County resident Shaquana Green, 26, who has been on the sex offender registry for four years after pleading guilty in 2013 to interference with custody of children, was stunned to learn Wednesday that legislation had been introduced that would remove her crime from the registry.
Green, whose story was featured in the July 23 story published by this news organization, disappeared with her then-toddler-age daughter during a scheduled weekly supervised visit. Green is a noncustodial parent. Her daughter’s paternal grandmother is the legal guardian. The daughter was returned unharmed fewer than three hours later and court records in the case mention no allegations of sexual contact.
Green, a single mom who now has a nearly 2-year-old son, recounted the hardships she has encountered as a registered sex offender, including rejections from potential landlords and employers, as well as social service programs involving children.
Since her story went public, she continues to encounter difficulties. She recently was turned down for two jobs because, she said, her potential employer was wary of her sex offender status.
“This is amazing. This is a blessing,” Green said Wednesday. “I’m just at a loss for words right now.”