Homestead - South Dade

No charges filed in mysterious autism charity case

From left to right: Richard DiBenedetto, head of Florida Rock Stars; Cheryl A. Lawko, vice president of resource development for the Special Olympics in Miami-Dade County; and Steven Bateman. Lawko told the Herald the Special Olympics were supposed to partner with the Autism Resource Center, but it never happened.
From left to right: Richard DiBenedetto, head of Florida Rock Stars; Cheryl A. Lawko, vice president of resource development for the Special Olympics in Miami-Dade County; and Steven Bateman. Lawko told the Herald the Special Olympics were supposed to partner with the Autism Resource Center, but it never happened. City of Homestead

A county ethics investigation has cleared former Homestead Mayor Steve Bateman of any ethical violations stemming from his solicitations on behalf of a mysterious autism charity the politician used to raise funds after his wife’s death.

When Donna Bateman died of pancreatic cancer in April of 2016, an obituary printed in the South Dade News Leader suggested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to an autism charity of which few had heard: The Autism Resource Center.

The Miami Herald reported in September that the Autism Resource Center was not registered as a charity with the state and that the mailing address that was listed belonged to Bateman’s niece who lived in the Orlando area. The checks were routed to a bank back in Homestead. From there, how that money was spent was unclear.

But after reviewing bank records, investigators concluded that there was no evidence that Bateman pocketed any of the money raised after his wife’s obituary was printed, which was just over $3,000.

The Batemans have an autistic son.

Bateman was convicted in 2014 of two counts of public corruption. The year before, allegations surfaced that he was lobbying behind the scenes for a health clinic, Community Health Inc., while he was secretly on the clinic’s payroll and that he was profiting from the relationship. Bateman was sentenced to 22 months for illegally using his influence as mayor while on Community Health’s payroll, netting $70,000 in consulting fees. He remains free on bond while the conviction is still under appeal.

Then last year, questions arose about the charity named in his wife’s obituary. The Autism Resource Center was never registered with the state as a charity, or as a so-called “501(c)(3)” charity with the IRS, records show. Having 501(c)(3) status enables a charity’s donors to take an income tax deduction. It was incorporated as a for-profit business 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.

Karl Ross, an investigator with the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics, said in a close-out memo that “while the above review suggests a lack of good stewardship with respect to funds raised for disabled youths, there is nothing to suggest that any funds unsolicited or received were used for personal expenses.”

He added that “should the [Autism Resource Center] fail to convert itself into a legitimate charitable enterprise registered with the state of Florida and/or the IRS, then the remaining funds, totaling just over $3,000, should be donated to a recognized charity serving the autistic youth.”

Bateman did not respond to attempts by the Herald to reach him for comment.

The Herald reported in September that few people who are affiliated with established autism charities or groups were aware of the the center’s activities. It also reported that the corporation was administratively dissolved by the state months before Donna Bateman’s death.

The Autism Resource Center was not reinstated until early September, immediately after the Miami Herald asked Steven Bateman’s attorney about it. The secretary of state’s office, which regulates charities — said the center has never registered with the office.

The only name that had ever been associated with the charity in corporate records is Steven M. Ackerman, its president and registered agent. Ackerman was Bateman’s campaign treasurer in 2011 during a tumultuous political season.

The year after the Autism Resource Center was founded, it had a flurry of activity.

In 2013, a benefit concert was held; advance tickets cost $15. That money was slated to create an Autism Resource Center in Homestead, which would offer after-school programs to teach life skills to children with autism, according to an event flier

Months later, a city of Homestead news release quoted two event organizers as saying they “presented” Mayor Bateman with a check for the funds raised. One of the two organizers, Richard DiBenedetto, could not recall how much was raised, nor how much was given to the Autism Resource Center. Neither Bateman nor Ackerman could recall, either.

Where those funds went is still unclear.

Monique O. Madan: 305-376-2108, @MoniqueOMadan

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