AG's office: Make Your Date didn't pay staff to raise funds

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit —The state Attorney General's Office has found that a nonprofit for a controversial program linked to Mayor Mike Duggan did not compensate staff or contractors to raise money nor did it take in enough funds to require state registration.

But the Attorney General's Office is still investigating complaints that two Detroit employees were directed to delete emails related to Make Your Date, a program aimed at reducing preterm births, amid an investigation by Detroit's Office of Inspector General over whether Duggan and/or city officials potentially abused their authority by providing the program favor. 

Concerns over Make Your Date came in the wake of a report that the program received $358,000 in city grants and benefited from a fundraising campaign that a city official led at the mayor’s request.

Attorney General Dana Nessel's Charitable Trust division delved into the fundraising practices of the nonprofit Make Your Date, Inc.

Concerns over Make Your Date came in the wake of a Detroit Free Press report that the program received $358,000 in city grants and benefited from a fundraising campaign that a city official led at the mayor’s request. Duggan's relationship to Sonia Hassan, the doctor who heads the effort, also has been publicly questioned. 

The single-page finding issued Tuesday by the Attorney General's Office notes that "it appears this organization does not compensate staff or independent contractors for services related to fundraising."

"Additionally, this organization does not solicit or receive contributions in excess of $25,000 in a 12-month period," the letter notes, adding that based on the finding and state laws for charities, registration under the Charitable Organizations and Solicitations Act was not required.

Wayne State University noted in a Thursday statement that the attorney general office's analysis included interviews and inspection of documents and "confirmed that its registration exemption status was proper."

Duggan and the university have said that a private nonprofit was established in spring 2014. The paperwork was filed, but within a couple of months, officials involved realized that Wayne State already had an office that handed fundraising and could accept tax-exempt gifts and decided the program would instead be run by the university.

The mayor has said that the city never directed any dollars toward a nonprofit. The partnership, he said, was with Wayne State University directly.

"The attorney general confirmed that the separate nonprofit had not spent or received in excess of $25,000 in a 12-month period," the university's statement reads. "In fact, it spent or received no money."

Kelly Rossman-McKinney, a spokeswoman for Nessel, said Thursday that the charitable trust review began about nine months ago, and it included an initial meeting with Hassan and Make Your Date's legal team. Another meeting was later held with WSU, which Hassan also attended, she said. 

"Wayne State and the nonprofit were responsive and cooperative," she said. 

The review concluded that the stand-alone charity didn't employ any staff nor did it take in any funding, Rossman-McKinney confirmed.

The nonprofit had one asset, a trademark provided as an in-kind contribution by the university, she added.

The registration exemption for the nonprofit was granted effective Oct. 8.

Wayne State on Thursday said that the report reaffirms that the university is the only entity operating the program.

"Wayne State is proud of Make Your Date, which a recent study has shown has reduced preterm birth among the program’s clients by up to 37%," the university wrote. "Wayne State University will continue to execute and expand the Make Your Date Program to further reduce preterm birth and improve pregnancy outcomes for women and children in the City of Detroit and beyond."

The university said the program launched based on research done at the National Institutes of Health's Perinatal Research Branch at Wayne State and Detroit Medical Center's Hutzel Women’s Hospital in which Hassan played a prominent role. She is a volunteer in her efforts to lead the program, according to Wayne State. 

The state, in its report, noted that normally, financial accounting must be filed six months following the close of each fiscal year. However, the nonprofit asked for and was granted a seven-year waiver of the requirement. 

"The attorney general reserves the right to request waived accountings if questions arise," the letter reads. 

The city of Detroit declined to comment on the attorney general's Tuesday finding.

In August, Nessel's office confirmed it had shifted from a review to an investigation of claims from Detroit employees that they were directed to delete emails related to the nonprofit.

"The attorney general's Public Integrity Unit is continuing to pursue an investigation into Make Your Date," Rossman-McKinney said Thursday. 

The city's Law Department in August publicly released hundreds of pages of the previously deleted or missing emails that detail fundraising efforts by city employees for the nonprofit. In the emails, fund development officers Monique Phillips and Claire Huttenlocher solicit funding for Make Your Date from several foundations. 

Hassan and some of her staffers are copied in some of the emails that range from November 2017 through November 2018.

Detroit's Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia has said city officials discovered in early May that some emails were potentially "deleted or missing" in the Office of Grants and Development amid the inspector general's probe.

Phillips and Huttenlocher, he said, "weren't acting outside of their normal scope" and "were just doing their jobs" and "trying to raise money for a program that helps with the problem of preterm birth."

The city has released few details on the circumstances that led to the deletion of the emails, citing the ongoing investigation of Detroit Inspector General Ellen Ha. 

Detroit's Deputy Inspector General Kamau Marable said Thursday that the office's investigation has entered its final stages.