Defunct Jaycees Chapter Lives On In Controversy

April 21, 1991|By Robert Lee | Robert Lee,Staff writer

A small Brooklyn Park Jaycees chapter has disbanded, but a controversy about money its members raised for a dying girl hasn't subsided.

The Brooklyn Park group was a small, struggling chapter of the nationwide service organization. Meetings were held in a local bar, and one former member said, "Most people joined for the softball team."

Then in May 1990 the members adopted the cause of Samantha Battaglia, a 5-year-old girl dying of a rare genetic disease that prevents her bones from growing.

Battaglia's Brooklyn Park family wanted toraise enough money for a "fairy-tale funeral" with a white casket ona carriage pulled by six white horses.

The compelling story of a mother who wanted her dying child remembered as a joy and not a burden, together with Samantha Battaglia's charming personality, drew the attention of several newspapers and television stations, and membership in the Brooklyn Park chapter began to grow.

But behind the scenes the family and the Jaycees were engaged in a bitter dispute about a July 13, 1990, fund-raising event. Family members questioned the expenditure of $1,800 on food, drink and entertainment and argued about who should control a trust fund established to handle the money raised for the child.

Among other complaints, family members said that money from tickets sold at local stores was never collected, and at least one donation check was never cashed. The $4,300 raised at thefund-raiser wasn't placed in an account designated for the estate ofSamantha Battaglia until Aug. 30.

Last fall the Maryland Jaycees began an internal investigation, eventually clearing the Brooklyn Park chapter of any wrongdoing or malicious intent.

But the family complained that they have never seen the account nor do they have any idea how they would be able to get at the account to pay for a funeralshould Samantha die.

Samantha's doctors at the Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital say because the 6-year-old's lungs have grown and her torso hasn't, one case of pneumonia or even a bad cold could claimher life.

"All we've ever been told is that there are these two trustees of the account, and we don't know how to contact them becauseneither one has a telephone," Samantha's grandmother, Sherry Watson,said.

"The Brooklyn Park Jaycees continue to hold the funds . . .in a separate trust account (and) fully intend to use this money forthe funeral expenses and/or any expenses that arise or are brought to their attention to benefit the child during her life," an attorney for the Brooklyn Park Jaycees told the Secretary of State's Office, which investigated the case this January.

Because the chapter is defunct, Maryland Jaycees attorney Mark Lechowicz said Friday that the Maryland Jaycees will do "whatever is in their power to make sure themoney is secured and readily available for the Battaglia family's legitimate needs."

Lechowicz plans to meet with former Brooklyn ParkJaycees attorney Ronald Silkworth tomorrow.

Silkworth was out of town and unavailable for comment last week.

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