OLDSMAR, Florida - For five years, Michael Pinson solicited donations to a non-profit organization he created - in his own name - to support local causes. But a three-month long 10 News investigation into The Pinson Foundation reveals more money often went to paying for parties than charities.
Pinson, a local business owner and political activist, held his signature event, the "VIP Mardi Gras Charity Party Benefiting The Spring of Tampa Bay" annually from 2006 to 2009. The Spring is a shelter for battered women and children that never sponsored the event.
A flyer from the 2008 party touts corporate sponsorship opportunities as a way to "gain exposure for your business, while writing off the donation, along with an overwhelming feeling that you are helping to protect women & children...priceless!"
But despite hundreds of attendees at the $50-a-head party, silent auction proceeds, and possible corporate sponsorships, the Pinson Foundation donated just $2,000 to The Spring. IRS documents show the organization took in more than $14,000 in revenue from admissions and merchandise sold.
Instead of donor dollars going toward charities, however, the majority was spent on the party's expenses, from its three open bars to its extravagant menu.
"There was a lot of food there, and a lot - a LOT - of alcohol," said Chris Kapper, a former Pinson Foundation donor who said he got a "bad vibe" from the Mardi Gras fundraiser he attended.
"There were girls in his hot tub," Kapper continued. "It seemed like a bachelor-type singles party...it was like (the charity mention) was there...to pay for the party."
From 2006 to 2009, the Pinson Foundation threw four successful fundraising parties in The Spring's name, but passed along a total of just $11,447 cash to the shelter - a tiny portion of the more than $75,000 his non-profit raked in.
In 2006 and 2007, Pinson also donated some used computers and helped solicit $4,000 in direct donations for the shelter, but the numbers dropped off in 2008 and 2009, when his foundation gave a total of $4,600 despite several successful fundraising events.
Instead, Pinson spent thousands of donor dollars on sponsorships and tickets for himself to other local charity fundraising parties, documented by thousands of party pictures he posts on the foundation's facebook page.
Foundation expenses included Pinson's tickets to a 13 Ugly Men party, the Cattle Barron's Ball, and a "half-sponsorship" to a Dancing with the Stars fundraiser.
The 10 News Investigators spoke to former Pinson Foundation donors, volunteers, board members, and associates who tell similar stories about Pinson's obsession with getting his name seen.
In 2010, the Pinson Foundation cut back even further its donations to local charities, instead paying for a trip for Pinson and a friend to go to Haiti to distribute another agency's relief supplies.
Pinson posted hundreds of pictures on Facebook from the trip and put out a press release touting his work. He claimed the Foundation spent upwards of $9,000 on the trip, but it's not clear how much of that total went toward the cost of his travel.
But Pinson deceived the public in other ways:
His company websites claimed he "served his country as a Special Operations Military Police officer" during the Persian Gulf War. U.S. Special Operations Command tells 10 News the title never existed.
Pinson removed the title after 10 News began asking about it, but at the time of publishing, the claim still existed on this website.
The same websites also claimed Gov. Charlie Crist considered naming Pinson to the U.S. Senate when Mel Martinez retired in the middle of his term in 2009. Pinson cited a political blog, RedCounty.com.
However, the blog was written by a friend and was also removed after 10 News began asking questions (it was later re-activated).
A longtime Crist advisor also tells 10 News, "Pinson wouldn't have been considered for dogcatcher."
And at a 2011 event to the Bucs' training facility with a group of special needs children, one attendee tells 10 News that Pinson and his friend were more concerned with taking promotional pictures in the Bucs' locker room than the kids.
The Pinson Foundation made promises of awarding scholarships at fundraisers, but after five years of existence, the non-profit has yet to award any scholarship money.
Pinson also admitted in an email that the foundation's most recently-filed paperwork with the IRS didn't reflect gross revenue from events, as instructed, but the lower "net" amount. Meaning the foundation may have raised much more than the $75,000 it indicated in various places.
But only after five years of not filling out the proper paperwork did the IRS automatically revoke the Pinson Foundation's 501(c)3 status. It has since been reinstated, but it's unlikely the IRS has ever taken a close look at the agency's paperwork.
Non-profits are the Wild, Wild West of tax enforcement. There are nearly 1.6 million non-profits in the country, but only 0.5% of them had tax returns reviewed by the IRS last year.
But those involved in the Tampa Bay non-profit community say most groups have good intentions and do important things for the community.
"One bad apple does not make the rest of the non-profit sector suspect," said Grace Armstrong with the Non-Profit Leadership Center of Tampa Bay.
"This isn't the time to be so skeptical that you stop giving," said Brenda Rouse with The Spring of Tampa Bay. "We can always take your call and answer any questions about where your gift is going."
Officials at The Spring of Tampa Bay tell 10 News they're very appreciative of the donations the Pinson Foundation has made, and added that he solicited five additional donations back in 2006 and 2007. Those donations, totalling $4,000, were from benefactors who wrote their checks directly to the shelter, rather than Pinson.
Rouse says direct checks are the best way to be sure your donation at a fundraiser goes 100% to the charity, rather than paying for event overhead or other things, since charities often have no control over events if a third-party is organizing it.
For more information on The Spring of Tampa Bay, including their upcoming breakfast with Attorney General Pam Bondi, visit TheSpring.org.
To see some of the numbers 10 News used in its reporting, see what Pinson reported to the IRS on his August 2010 Form 1023 submission and its supplement.
For general tips on researching a non-profit organization, click here.
Connect with 10 News Investigator Noah Pransky on Facebook at www.facebook.com/noahpransky or Twitter at www.twitter.com/noahpransky. Send your story tips to email@example.com.