MINNEAPOLIS — A St. Paul professor who led a viral crowdfunding campaign to pay off student lunch debts in Philando Castile's name spent less than half of the $200,000 she raised on the intended purpose, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison alleged Thursday, June 3.

Ellison's office filed a civil enforcement action in Ramsey County District Court against Pamela Fergus, alleging a breach of charitable trust, deceptive solicitation of charitable contributions, failure to maintain proper records and unregistered solicitation of contributions.

"Philando Castile cared deeply about the children he served and the children loved Mr. Phil right back," said Ellison, calling Castile a "hero" in his lunchroom. "Raising money supposedly to serve those children, then not doing so, is an insult to Philando's legacy and all who loved him."

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison. (Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press)
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison. (Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press)

Fergus did not immediately respond to phone and email messages left for her Thursday.

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A professor at Metropolitan State University, Fergus created the "Philando Feeds the Children" online crowdfunding effort a year after Castile was shot and killed during a traffic stop by a St. Anthony police officer in 2016.

Castile was known to pay out of pocket for children whose families could not afford to buy their own lunches when he worked as a nutrition supervisor at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School in St. Paul. Fergus started the campaign as a semester project for her class, promising that "every dollar" donated would help pay down student lunch debts.

The campaign soon sailed past an initial $5,000 goal, and Fergus kept it running beyond the semester as it went viral.

According to the civil complaint signed by Assistant Attorney General Lindsey Lee, Fergus deposited the more than $200,000 she collected through the YouCaring website into her personal checking account. She also allegedly welcomed donors to mail her checks.

Lee wrote that St. Paul Public Schools reported that Fergus wrote three checks from her group's proceeds to go to the district totaling more than $80,000 between October 2017 and August 2018. But the remaining $120,000 was not accounted for.

Ellison on Thursday described the enforcement action as a "last resort" to find out what happened to the remaining funds, after Fergus refused to comply with an investigation by his office last year.

That probe started with a tip from Valerie Castile, Philando's mother, who said she was rebuffed by Fergus when she asked how the money was being spent.

"Unmistakably, throughout decades people have capitalized on people's grief and pain and suffering," Valerie Castile said Thursday.

Castile cited those concerns in her decision to have Philando's name and face trademarked at one point.

Fergus attracted national media attention with her campaign, telling a Washington Post reporter in 2018 that "we actually have enough money now to pay off all of the schools in the St. Paul public school district ... So all of the grade schools, all of the middle schools and all of the high schools."

She added that "I don't think there's an end in sight. I want a million dollars in that account."

According to the complaint, Fergus told the attorney general's office in a March 2020 email that her campaign instead raised $79,535 and not the higher amount published in news reports because of "administrative fees charged by the funding sites" and "bad donations that didn't clear."

She claimed she passed along all donations to St. Paul Public Schools but admitted that she did not keep a financial accounting. Fergus would later not allow Ellison's office to access her bank account records where the donations were deposited, Lee wrote.

She later invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in response to all questions raised during a formal civil investigation led by Ellison's office last year.

In the court filing and during a news conference Thursday, Ellison's office pointed out the "rise of crowdfunding" as a popular tool to raise money for charitable causes, noting that donors gave about $3 million in GoFundMe donations to social justice and equity fundraisers in the six months after George Floyd's death last year.

Ellison noted that the boom in online fundraising necessitated further education on legal requirements associated with operating charities.

His office is seeking monetary relief and civil penalties in its lawsuit, and is asking a judge to order Fergus to "undertake remedial actions to address the unlawful acts and omissions" outlined in its complaint.

"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.

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