Fund-raiser For Child Generates Bitterness, Controversy Brooklyn Park

September 23, 1990|By Robert Lee | Robert Lee,Staff writer

It seemed like a match made in heaven.

Late in May, a Brooklyn Park family, who had just been told their crippled child had six months to live, was looking for a sponsor to organize a benefit to pay for her funeral.

They stumbled upon a meeting of the Brooklyn Park Jaycees -- a small community service organization that had come upon hard times and was desperately seeking a cause to get its name back out into the community. The two parties quickly worked out an agreement.

But after four months of aggravation, mismanagement and bickering, both parties now wish they had never met.

The family of Samantha Battaglia, who is dying from the complications of a rare genetic bone disease, says a July 13 benefit banquet was botched from the beginning by the Brooklyn Park Jaycees.

But Jeff Harmon, the organization's treasurer who chaired the event, says he "did a darned good job," and accused the family of waging a "slander campaign" and a "media war" against the Brooklyn Park organization out of spite.

However, regional and state Jaycees officials, who were asked by the dying child's family to intervene, said Harmon and the tiny Brooklyn Park chapter were in over their heads. They tried to run a fund-raiser that received statewide media attention and handled it badly.

The state and regional officials confirmed charges by the girl's family that checks made out to the Samantha Battaglia trust had not been cashed, that 175 tickets to the banquet are still unaccounted for and that money from a charitable gambling wheel had been transferred to cover a shortfall in ticket receipts.

In fact, Jaycees officials say, none of an estimated $4,300 raised at the banquet has been placed in a proper trust fund.

Thursday night, the Brooklyn Park chapter was given eight days to account for all the missing tickets, deposit all the checks and transfer all of the money raised at the the banquet from a Brooklyn Park Jaycees account to a legal trust fund managed by the family.

If the Brooklyn Park Jaycees fail to meet the ultimatum, state Jaycees President Robert McCoy has promised to "use all available procedures" to discipline the chapter, suggesting that the club's 30-year-old charter was in danger of being revoked.

McCoy said he addressed the chapter in late July and strongly advised members to forget any personal differences with Samantha Battaglia's family, and account for all the missing tickets.

A Sept. 6 audit by the statewide treasurer of the Jaycees showed that nothing had been done by Harmon or the other Brooklyn Park Jaycees and that $2,110 in checks and money orders had not been accounted for, officers of the state organization said.

Last month Harmon gained notoriety when he was hit with one of the largest zoning fines in county history -- $24,700 -- for keeping carnival equipment and assorted automotive debris in his yard. Court records show Harmon ignored warnings from the county Department of Planning and Zoning, as far back as 1987 and a circuit court judge's direct order to clear his yard in November 1989.

"Jeff (Harmon) has a heart of gold, he really does. He just didn't take care of what he needed to for Brooklyn Park to accept the responsibility to handle this big of a project," said regional director Earl Murphy Jr. who also belongs to the Glen Burnie Jaycees.

"That's just the way he is, he just doesn't follow through well," said Murphy who has worked with Harmon for years.

Harmon, however, insisted Friday that "I haven't done anything wrong with the books." He said he was surprised that the statewide Jaycees was coming down so hard on his Brooklyn Park group.

The problem, he said, was with family of Samantha Battaglia -- her mother Angela Cochran and her grandparents George and Sherry Watson -- who he said wanted to take control of the account which would allow them to use it for purposes other than for Samantha's funeral. He said they made this clear to him after the July 13 banquet.

Samantha Battaglia's pro-bono lawyer, Ellenora deWaal, said all the family had ever asked was for Harmon to account for money raised at the event and transfer it a trust fund with a legitimate non-profit tax identification code. She said he never complied with any of their requests and always took the advice as an affront.

Angela Cochran and Sherry Watson, Samantha's mother and grandmother, said they were forced to solicit donations for the banquet on their own with the help of regional Jaycees director Earl Murphy, because Harmon wasn't moving quickly enough.

The donations, including hundreds of dollars worth of meat from Manger's Meat Market, paper products from S.A. Davis & Son, and potato chips from Utz -- were then never used at the banquet according to several guests who attended it.

Angela Cochran admitted she and other members of her family lost their tempers with Harmon on several occasions over the way he was organizing the banquet but said "he provoked it with his attitude."

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