A professor in Minnesota who launched a crowdfunding campaign to reduce student lunch debt in the name of a Black cafeteria worker fatally shot by police in 2016 is unable to account for $120,000 in donations, according to the state’s attorney general.
Pamela Fergus’ “Philando feeds the Children” philanthropic effort donated only $80,000 to Saint Paul Public Schools for its stated purpose of relieving student lunch debt, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced Thursday. The rest of the money, more than $120,000, is unaccounted for, and Fergus has been uncooperative with investigators probing what happened to the missing funds, Ellison said.
Fergus now faces a civil enforcement action from Ellison’s office for breach of charitable trust, deceptive solicitation of charitable contributions, failure to keep proper records as a soliciting charity and failure to register with the Attorney General’s office, Ellison said.
Fergus, who was a community adjunct faculty member at Metropolitan State University, integrated the fundraising campaign into a psychology class titled: “Introduction to Diversity and Ethics in Psychology," Audrey Bergengren, a spokeswoman at the college, told NBC News on Friday. Community adjunct faculty are retained on a semester basis, and Fergus hasn't worked there since May 7, Bergengren said.
Officials at the college learned of Ellison's lawsuit against Fergus on Thursday and are investigating, according to Bergengren.
"We expect and demand that our faculty, staff and students conduct themselves in an honest, ethical manner and comply with the law," Bergengren said in a statement. "Our hearts go out Valerie Castile, mother of Philando Castile, for her unimaginable ongoing grief for the loss of her son. Philando Castile’s generosity and care for the students at JJ Hill is a model of community involvement for our university."
Valerie Castile joined Ellison for a Thursday press conference. Ellison, who called her a "friend" and "hero," said prosecutors in his office were tipped off by Castile more than a year ago and began looking into Fergus' fundraising initiative.
Castile said she participated in what she thought was a legitimate charity, which was only supposed to last one semester, but continued for a year. When Castile went to Fergus and asked to look at her records, Fergus refused, Castile said.
"It's just sad that we have to come to this level," she said. "When I asked her for the records and she refused to give them to me, I was left with no choice," Castile said, adding that she went to her attorney to try and obtain Fergus' financial records.
"I felt disrespected, I felt hurt. I didn't know what to do. ... I want to apologize to everyone who made donations to help pay off those lunch balances," Castile said.
Fergus is employed at another higher-education institution in Minnesota. Fergus has been a full-time psychology instructor at Inver Hills Community College. She was placed on administrative leave Friday, a spokeswoman for the community college said.
Fergus did not respond to multiple calls and emails seeking comment.
Fergus raised at least $200,774 that went into her personal checking account between September 2017 and May 2018, Ellison said.
“Philando Castile cared deeply about the children he served, and the children loved him back. Raising money supposedly to serve those children, then not doing so, is an insult to Philando’s legacy and all who loved him,” Ellison said in a statement.
Castile, 32, worked as an elementary school cafeteria worker when he was killed by a police officer in Minnesota during a traffic stop in July 2016.
In Thursday's news conference, Ellison added that Castile had a deep bond with the elementary school children at his workplace.
"Philando Castile cared deeply about the children that he served. And the children loved Mr. Phil right back. He really was a hero in that lunchroom," Ellison said.
Castile was known to dig into his own wallet for children whose families could not afford lunches when he worked as a nutrition supervisor at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School.
Much like she did with Valerie Castile, Ellison said, Fergus declined to answer questions when pressed by his office.
In 2020, Ellison said, his office issued a civil investigative demand about the fundraiser, and Fergus invoked her “Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refused to provide any evidence as to what happened to the missing money.”
Fergus’ goal for the charitable drive was to raise $5,000, Ellison, said. Instead, $80,036 was donated to public schools. But then Fergus kept the drive’s fundraising webpage active, and donations continued to pour into her checking account after the fall 2017 semester ended, Ellison said.
Fergus began the campaign in her undergraduate class stating that “every dollar” would help pay down lunch debt for students, prosecutors said.
“After attempting for more than a year to work with Ms. Fergus to account for the missing money but being continually rebuffed, my office filed this enforcement action today as a last resort. We never want to have to get to this point, but as the chief regulator of charities in Minnesota, I will use all the tools at my disposal to ensure that dollars raised for charitable purposes go only to those purposes — because that money belongs to the public, not to the people who raise it,” Ellison said.
Ellison’s office seeks restitution from Fergus to “ensure that charitable funds are used as donors intended.”
Castile’s 2016 death garnered national headlines, in part because its aftermath was livestreamed on Facebook by his girlfriend. Following his death, Castile’s name became a rallying cry in the Black Lives Matter movement.
St. Anthony Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez, who is Latino, killed Castile. Yanez was later acquitted of manslaughter.