The state of Minnesota has filed a civil complaint against a Twin Cities-area college professor, alleging a host of financial misdeeds after more than $100,000 of donations intended for St. Paul Public Schools given in the wake of the 2016 police killing of Philando Castile has gone missing.
In a 28-page complaint filed in Ramsey County District Court on Thursday, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison claims that Inver Hills Community College and Metro State University professor Pamela Fergus's "Philando Feeds the Children" initiative spent just a fraction of the several hundred thousand dollars it raised. The initiative was advertised as an effort to end student lunch debt in the St. Paul school district, where Castile served as a cafeteria worker. In his complaint, Ellison alleges that Fergus:
broke her promise to donors and misused the charitable assets entrusted to her. Out of the more than $200,000 she collected for student lunch debt — and put into her personal checking account — less than half went toward paying down student lunch debts as Fergus promised.
In 2017, Fergus's crowdfunded campaign did succeed in clearing student lunch debt for St. Paul Public Schools. She appeared with Castile's mother Valerie to help present a check to administrators at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School, where Castile often paid for student lunches from his own pocket.
"We just had this little idea that we were going to help do Mr. Phil’s job and make sure you guys have good lunch to eat every day," Fergus told students at the event, while Castile's mother agreed that "this would’ve meant everything to him."
Now, four years later, Ellison alleged Fergus's campaign "breached charitable trust" as well as deceptively solicited the funds, as well as failed to keep adequate records of the money, resulting in $120,000 of funds that cannot be accounted for.
"Fergus told donors she would use all funds to pay down lunch debts for elementary school students and then failed to do so," the complaint claims. "On the [Philando Feeds the Children] crowdfunding webpage, she told donors that 'this site is collecting donations to pay off elementary school kids’ lunch debt' and 'your donations eliminate accruing debt for kids who need help.' While at least $200,774 in PFC proceeds went into Fergus's checking account, she only gave $80,035.99 to [St. Paul Public Schools] for the purposes of relieving student lunch debts. Accordingly, Fergus's promise to donors that all funds would be used to pay down lunch debts was deceptive."
Speaking with the Twin Cities Pioneer Press, Valerie Castile said her relationship with Fergus soured as the fundraiser continued to grow alongside Castile's own efforts to claim legal stewardship of Philando's name. After confronting Fergus at one point over the fundraising campaign, Castile says Fergus told her, "I don't owe you any explanation."
"She refused to give me any information about how the funds were being allocated, so I turned that information over to my attorney," Castile said.
According to the complain, Fergus invoked her 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination during the investigation that led to this week's complaint.
Castile's 2016 death was one of the key touchstones of the Black Lives Matter protests that rocked the country that summer, following a number of high profile police killings of Black men in particular. The officer who shot and killed Castile during a traffic stop was eventually found not guilty of second-degree manslaughter.
Still, Castile's legacy has loomed large over St. Paul and the Twin Cities writ large. A memorial at the site of his death has been steadily maintained, with plans to expand into a permanent "Philando Castile Peace Garden" approved earlier this year.
"It's so unfortunate," Valerie Castile told the Pioneer Press. "No one wants it to come to this, and there are so many generous people out there who were willing to help and donate."