In life, Donna Bateman supported the Soroptimist women’s club, which contributes millions to charities that educate underpriviledged women and girls, as well as the American Cancer Society and Autism Speaks, one of the leading advocacy groups for children and adults with the neurologic disorder. She also volunteered with Agape Family Ministries, a community health network, and Homestead High School’s autism support program.
When Bateman, the wife of Homestead’s disgraced former mayor, died of pancreatic cancer in April, her parents encouraged mourners to donate to a music scholarship in her name at her local high school in Somerset, Mass.
So, some in the rough-and-tumble world of Homestead politics — and even Bateman’s mother — were surprised when her husband, Steven Bateman, who was convicted in 2014 of two counts of public corruption, suggested in a South Dade News Leader obituary that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to an autism charity that few had heard of.
The mailing address given was that of Bateman’s niece in an Orlando suburb. The checks then were routed to a bank in Homestead. From there, it’s unclear.
“I’ve always questioned that organization,” said Donna Bateman’s mother, Helen Sowa. “I questioned why Steven put that in her obituary.”
The group, Autism Resource Center, is not registered with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service as a charity. It was incorporated with the Florida Division of Corporations in 2012, but was administratively dissolved by the state in September 2015 for failure to file an annual report. The Autism Resource Center was not reinstated until Sept. 2, immediately after the Miami Herald asked Steven Bateman’s lawyer about it. A second branch of Florida government — the secretary of state’s office, which regulates charities — said the center has never registered with the office.
The only name that has ever been associated with the center in corporate records is Steven M. Ackerman, its president and registered agent. Ackerman was Bateman’s campaign treasurer in 2011.
Bateman’s most recent term as Homestead’s top politician was tumultuous. By 2013, allegations surfaced that he was lobbying behind the scenes for a health clinic, Community Health Inc., while he was profiting from the relationship. In 2014, Bateman was sentenced to 22 months for illegally using his influence as mayor while he was secretly on CHI’s payroll, netting $70,000 in consulting fees. He remains free on bond while the conviction is under appeal.
It was her dream to help local autistic children, and she did, in many ways.
Steven Bateman, on his late wife Donna
The Herald submitted several questions to Benedict Kuehne, Steven Bateman’s lawyer, on Wednesday, including inquiries concerning how much money the Autism Resource Center raised, and where the dollars were spent. Reporters asked for a response by the end of business Thursday. Though he had requested that questions be sent in writing, Kuehne had not responded to them as of Friday night. Late Friday, prompted by one last inquiry, he said he had time to consult with Bateman over the weekend. The Herald asked when specifically a response would come but heard nothing more.
“The Autism Resource Center was left without its visionary and spokesperson when Donna fell ill and battled the cancer that ultimately led to her early death. Steven and their son continue to grieve,” Kuehne said earlier. “Steven was not the founder, leader, or decision maker in the organization. Like others, he was the consummate volunteer, driving children to programs, being a sports coach, and helping out in so many needed ways.”
In a short phone interview, Steven Bateman called his wife “an incredible woman” who, instead of dwelling on the misfortune of their son’s autism, worked to improve the lives of other Homestead youngsters with the disorder whose parents had fewer resources.
“It was her dream to help local autistic children, and she did, in many ways.” Bateman said.
In an interview in his Kendall-area home office, Ackerman told the Herald he formed the ARC on behalf of Donna Bateman, who wished to “set up a school to teach life skills, such as laundry, cooking and simple jobs” to teenagers and young adults on the autism spectrum.
Ackerman said he did not know why the center never registered with the state as a charity, or as a so-called “501(c)(3)” charity with the IRS — other than that failing to do so was an oversight. Having 501(c)(3) status enables a charity’s donors to deduct contributions from their taxes.
A special education teacher, Elaine Abreu, who helped raise money for the resource center, identified herself as a board member in a June 26, 2013, letter soliciting contributions. In the letter, Abreu said donors would receive “a donation acceptance and appreciation letter” that could be used “for your income tax filing purposes.”
Frances R. Hill, a law professor at the University of Miami who has written textbooks on tax law and specializes in the laws governing charities, said she would strongly discourage any philanthropist from giving to a group that is not registered as a 501(c)(3), because the designation allows the IRS to oversee such charities and enforce the law when abuses occur.
“People give money because they want to be part of doing good things for other people they don’t know,” Hill said. “It’s altruism.” But, she added: “They also want the charitable contribution deduction” for their income taxes.
Ackerman, the center’s president, said he, too, would “probably not” contribute to a charity lacking a 501(c)(3) registration.
Kuehne said in an earlier email to the Herald that “the local nonprofit NEVER represented [itself] as a 501(c)(3) organization.”
The year after the ARC was founded, it had a flurry of activity partly tied to an effort to raise money on behalf of about a dozen Homestead High students with autism whom Steven Bateman said could not afford the transportation to Camp Shriver, a sports camp hosted by the city of Miami and the Special Olympics.
In February 2013, the Florida Rock Stars, a music preservation group, held a “Food and Rock Festival” at the city-owned Harris Field Pavilion to benefit the resource center. Advance tickets cost $15. A news release from the city quoted Mayor Bateman as saying proceeds would go toward “creating an Autism Resource Center in Homestead, which would offer after-school programs to teach life skills to our children with autism.”
The April 25, 2013, news release quoted two event organizers as saying they “presented” Mayor Bateman with “funds raised at the event to be used toward the Homestead Autism Resource Center.” One of the two organizers, Richard DiBenedetto, could not recall how much was raised, nor how much was given to the ARC. Neither Bateman nor Ackerman could recall, either.
Another group, the South Florida Baseball League, held an awards banquet during the Rock Stars’ event, and a news release from the league called the Autism Resource Center “a charity founded by the Mayor of Homestead.”
Records show that Bateman asked the city’s Parks and Recreation Department to seek $3,558 from the City Council to pay for a 15-passenger van and gas to transport the teens to camp. Mayor Bateman then left the June 19, 2013, meeting when the item was discussed, and abstained from voting.
Son Austin Bateman, now 18, and a Homestead High special education coach, Frank Marion III, appeared before the Homestead City Council that day in support of the measure. The council rejected it, though at least three members individually donated a total of $550 from their city discretionary accounts, records show.
Bateman said he contributed about $1,500 of his money, and encouraged others to chip in. Neither Bateman nor Abreu nor Ackerman can recall how much money was donated by the resource center toward leasing the van, they say.
Death and donations
Donna Bateman died of pancreatic cancer on the evening of April 14. In Massachusetts, her mother suggested in the local obituary that donations be made toward endowing a scholarship, called Somerset Friends of Music, in Bateman’s name at the local high school.
In Homestead, Steven Bateman suggested donations go to the Autism Resource Center. On his Facebook feed, Bateman also suggested that “any donations” be made in his wife’s honor to the center.
Steven Ackerman, the center’s president, said he, too, would “probably not” contribute to a charity lacking a 501(c)(3) registration.
Money contributed to the group followed a circuitous route: The obituary and Facebook post directed contributions to a Heather Ziccardi in Longwood, near Orlando. Ziccardi is Steven Bateman’s niece, according to the obituary.
Ziccardi did not return calls from a Herald reporter. In a short telephone interview, Bateman called Ziccardi “the best arrangement we could come up with” — then concluded the interview.
Money then went from Longwood to a TD Bank branch in Homestead. Ackerman said only he — and possibly an unspecified Homestead-area teacher — had signature authority on the account.
Few people who are affiliated with established autism charities or groups were aware of the ARC’s activities.
“We go through a lot to keep our 501(c)(3), and we make sure we do everything above-board,” said Ven Sequenzia, president of the Autism Society of Florida. “When you’ve got an organization out there like that, it makes it harder for the others.”
Susan Goldstein, a former state senator who now lobbies for the Dan Marino Center and other autism support groups, said she had never heard of the Autism Resource Center. “I have never heard of anything they have done, or any funds they’ve raised, if any.” Goldstein said she would expect to know the organization because she helps shepherd donations to local groups through the state’s autism license tag program.
The Herald asked Ackerman whether reporters could inspect the group’s financial documents, which would typically appear in an IRS annual report available for public scrutiny. He declined.