Noah’s Ark accused of helping itself instead of children – Atlanta Journal Constitution
When the Noahâ€™s Ark Childrenâ€™s Care home opened its doors in the early 1990s, it did so as a residential group home with the mission of providing a â€œa nurturing environmentâ€ for â€œstate-confiscated children,â€ according to IRS filings.
A Channel 2 Action News investigation found evidence the group home closed in 2010, but continued to solicit donations from the public, accepting at least $658,000 in contributions from donors in the years that followed.
â€œThereâ€™s no Childrenâ€™s Care Home, like no foster kids, period.â€ said Christy Cunningham, who worked as the Noahâ€™s Ark marketing director.
The Noahâ€™s Ark name is best known around metro Atlanta for its animal sanctuary which rescues and rehabilitates exotic animals.
But tucked away on the same Henry County property is a 6,000-square-foot house that was once the Childrenâ€™s Care Home.
The two charities share one address, one website â€” and money, according to the whistleblowers.
â€œYou get into a really sticky situation when you start taking money meant for one non-profit and putting it into another,â€ said Jo Crane, who worked as the charityâ€™s assistant controller.
Crane, Cunningham, and former accountant, Jill Phillips-Linger, approached WSB-TV to share what they observed while working at Noahâ€™s Ark.
â€œItâ€™s not anything like they pretend they are,â€ said Phillips-Linger.
All three women had access to the Noahâ€™s Ark records and say they were fired when they began to question discrepancies in the finances, and personal spending by the Noahâ€™s Ark founding family.
â€œThereâ€™s no way that they can account for everything they spent,â€ said Crane, â€œbecause itâ€™s not spent where it should be.â€
The charityâ€™s founder, Jama Hedgecoth, told Channel 2 she could account for all the money and said not â€œone pennyâ€ had been misspent.
In 2011, Georgiaâ€™s Department of Human Services (DHS) sent a letter to Noahâ€™s Ark confirming the Childrenâ€™s Care Home had closed, â€œin response to financial failure.â€
Hedgecoth did help foster children for years, but admitted in a letter to DHS that the last foster child left her home in March 2010.
â€œI freaked out. Iâ€™m like, â€˜Holy crap. Iâ€™m involved in a major, major scam,â€™â€ Cunningham recounted when she began working on the Noahâ€™s Ark website.
As recently as February 2015, that website was still soliciting and accepting donations as the Childrenâ€™s Care Home.
That same month, it changed its business name with the state of Georgia, but continued to utilize its original 501(c)(3) IRS exemption ID assigned to the childrenâ€™s home.
State records show that non-profit, now called Noahâ€™s Ark Childrenâ€™s Sanctuary, has not been registered as a charity since 2012.
â€œAbsolutely I think the state of Georgia should be investigating this organization,â€ said Sandra Minuitti, who runs the watchdog website, Charity Navigator. â€œThatâ€™s a huge ethical breach it could be a legal issue as well.â€
Minuitti said she sees a number of red flags in the Noahâ€™s Ark financial records, particularly so many Hedgecoth family members on both of the charityâ€™s boards.
She also found it unusual that the childrenâ€™s home could have brought in so many contributions without any fundraising expenses.
The charityâ€™s own audits show tens of thousands of dollars spent on things like groceries, utilities, even landscaping, since that last foster child left in 2010.
Hedgecoth, also paid herself roughly $100,000 in childrenâ€™s care home salary during that time; she also makes roughly $65,000 each year from the animal sanctuary.
Channel 2 initially scheduled an interview with Hedgecoth, then her general manager Raymond Jordan, who had arranged the interview, tried to cancel it due to weather.
When told the questions were regarding financial irregularities at the childrenâ€™s home, and that access to the animal sanctuary grounds were not necessary, he left a voice-mail message claiming Hedgecoth was suddenly getting on a plane to Haiti and would be unavailable for two weeks.
Two days later, Channel 2 spotted Hedgecoth and Jordan, at a gas station near Noahâ€™s Ark.
â€œYou canâ€™t tell me what happened to more than half a million dollars in the last five years?â€ Channel 2 asked.
â€œNothing has happened to over half a million dollars, except it was spent on children,â€ Hedgecoth replied, dismissing the allegations as being trumped-up by disgruntled former employees.
Hedgecoth admits five of the six kids featured on her website as â€œchildren of the arkâ€ are her own adopted children.
Channel 2 asked, â€œBesides your adopted children, who are the children living in that home?â€
â€œThereâ€™s children we have rescued from another country that are medically fragile,â€ replied Hedgecoth.
â€œOnline, you say the money youâ€™re raising is going to abused and neglected children?â€ Channel 2 asked.
â€œAbsolutely,â€ replied Hedgecoth, â€œHave you ever been to Haiti?â€
The sixth child featured on the website is Haitian. As of last summer, he was being adopted by Hedgecothâ€™s daughter.
â€œPutting them out there as foster kids, and people are giving them money, I mean, once you adopt them, theyâ€™re your kids. Itâ€™s not up to everybody else to raise your kids,â€ said Phillips-Linger.
â€˜Never misspent one pennyâ€™
Hedgecoth claims she pays for 100 percent of her adopted childrenâ€™s expenses and lifestyle, but admits they all live on the tax-free property. She says it is no longer a childrenâ€™s home, it is her home.
The latest IRS tax return for the childrenâ€™s home charity lists a $950,000 building as an asset, along with $150,000 worth of equipment.
â€œI have never misspent one penny, not one penny,â€ said Hedgecoth, â€œAnd I can prove it.â€
She may have to.
Georgiaâ€™s Secretary of Stateâ€™s charities division opened an investigation after Channel 2 inquired about the Noahâ€™s Ark records. The state plans to investigate both charities, based on the whistleblowersâ€™ claims.
After Hedgecothâ€™s interview, Noahâ€™s Ark changed its website, to specifically say it does not take in foster children through the state of Georgia.