Charity watchdog group questions Crimestoppers not releasing stats

Published: Jul. 10, 2017 at 4:12 PM CDT|Updated: Jul. 10, 2017 at 10:09 PM CDT
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A national charity watchdog group calls it a major red flag. We've tried for months to get some basic crime statistics from Crimestoppers of Greater New Orleans to no avail. Now, that watchdog group says donors and the public need to be made aware of the non-profit's practices.

Crimestoppers of Greater New Orleans is quick to tout its successes. Since its inception in 1981, it has helped to solve over 16,000 crimes and paid out over $2 million to tipsters. This is information provided on its website and used to help garner donations.

Back in February, we wanted to know what types of crimes and how many of each were solved last year in Orleans Parish, thanks to tips. But after months of inquiry, Crimestoppers told us that information couldn't be released.

On May 10, we sat down with CEO Darlene Cusanza for an interview. We asked why the information couldn't be provided to the media.

"For our Crimestoppers, we are very concerned about any event where someone could be retaliated," Cusanza said.

We weren't seeking case names or numbers, just a generic breakdown of the types of crimes solved. We asked Cusanza if she could simply give a ballpark figure of the number of homicides solved in 2016.

"We're not going to do that because we are very concerned about the confidentiality of our tipsters," Cusanza said.

"I think they can do it in such a way that maintains the confidentiality of their clients," Sandra Miniutti commented.

Miniutti serves as vice president of marketing for Charity Navigator, a national website that acts as a charity watchdog.

"I really don't see any rational explanation for them to not answer the public's questions," Miniutti said.

A month after our first story aired, detailing our attempt to get the stats from the non-profit and also questioning the amount of money being offered to tipsters, board of trustees member Jim Letten asked to sit down for an interview. On June 28, we tried to get more information about our initial request. We asked Letten what types of crimes the organization has helped to solve.

"We see homicides solved every day," he said. "Not every day, but very, very frequently. There are homicides that have been solved through Crimestoppers tips, there are drug offenses that have been solved through Crimestoppers tips, there are armed robberies that have been solved through Crimestoppers tips."

Letten wouldn't elaborate on just how frequently Crimestoppers tips help to solve homicides.

We then asked if tips are helping to solve homicides and armed robberies, wouldn't the organization be happy to share that news?

"I think the question is, is the organization successful? And I think the answer is absolutely yes," Letten said.

Letten told FOX 8 that it's up to Cusanza to decide if it's in the interest of security to share certain statistics.

We had previously asked NOPD Chief Michael Harrison for the number of homicides solved through Crimestoppers tips. Following a press conference at St. Louis Cathedral June on 23, Harrison said, "I wouldn't have that off the top of my head, but we can get that to you."

But when we followed up with the NOPD a few days later, spokesman Beau Tidwell said the police department didn't have those statistics and that we'd have to go through Crimestoppers for the data.

"I think that's a huge red flag, and it's something that we often tell donors that they should be concerned with," Miniutti said. "Any time you ask a charity a question and they back away or refuse to answer or put up those walls, that's a huge red flag. There's no reason for that."

We're not the only ones who couldn't get a breakdown on the specific types and numbers of crimes the non-profit helped to solve. The same goes for retired Jefferson Parish Judge George Giacobbe.

"Felt like Don Quixote. It was a battle I couldn't win because all the forces are against you," Giacobbe said. "They wouldn't give it to me. When I was on the bench, I would ask and I would never get it, but I wasn't going to force the issue."

Reporter: "So you would ask for a basic breakdown of how many crimes were solved through Crimestoppers and they wouldn't give you anything?"

Giacobbe: "Not only that, but also where the money was going, how much was spent and where it was spent. They wouldn't give it to me."

Giacobbe served 27 years on the bench in Jefferson Parish's First Parish Court. During his tenure, a state law passed requiring $2 from every traffic and criminal conviction to be handed over to that jurisdiction's local Crimestoppers organization. Giacobbe protested, and for a time refused to collect the fee.

"I can't tell you the last time we used Crimestoppers in my courtroom - like, never," Giacobbe said.

He explains his reasoning for not collecting the fee, saying court costs should be directly related to the operations of the court. Ultimately, Giacobbe felt the organization should be more transparent with their statistics.

"Since they are receiving public money, they should be telling you," Giacobbe said.

After a couple of years, tired of fighting what he called a "losing battle" with lots of push-back from law enforcement, Giacobbe began collecting the Crimestoppers fee in his courtroom.

Throughout the course of our investigation, we learned that the court money collected, $300,000 in 2015, can only be used to pay for the non-profit's hotline, as well as rewards to be paid out to tipsters. The money can't be used to pay for salaries.

The organization breaks down it's roughly $3 million in assets into different categories - temporarily restricted funds and unrestricted funds. Donors can decide how temporarily restricted funds are used. Unrestricted funds can be used for anything.

"I think every charity, no matter what their mission is, has an obligation to report to the public on the impact of their work. What have they accomplished with their dollars, the charitable dollars, because many charities do get government money, what have they accomplished with all that," Miniutti stated.

Miniutti says it doesn't matter how much public money a non-profit receives, even if it's a small percentage of the overall funds, transparency should be king. However, at this point only Crimestoppers knows all of the crimes solved with the help of that public money.

While we still haven't been able to get any specific statistics from Crimestoppers, after our initial report, the non-profit raised the amount of rewards being offered to tipsters. Throughout the summer months, up to $5,000 is being offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of someone who commits a murder.

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