By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
The Snow Job Express Rolls On
Controversial philanthropist Michael Scott Kerr tries to reinvent himself as a wrapper
The plan by Gratitude in Motion to honor America's troops appears wholesome enough, if a bit grandiose. This project is intended to raise millions of dollars for injured soldiers and their families by launching a two-year campaign highlighting their plight. Proposed events include concert tours with big-name musicians, wrapping pro-military banners on trucks and trains that will caravan across the country, and—most ambitiously—covering one of the massive Tustin blimp hangars with Gratitude in Motion's logo, an effort organizers are already claiming "will be listed in the Guinness Book of World Records" as the world's largest building wrap (they've obviously never heard of Christo). If everything falls into place, the festivities start this Veteran's Day.
But Gratitude in Motion is already a controversial effort, mainly because of one of the people helping the operation: Michael Scott Kerr.
Kerr is the South County resident who wanted to treat the children and widows of fallen troops to a giant party in OC but had an arrest warrant pending in Arizona for failing to pay nearly $49,000 in child support (see "A Snow Job Success," Dec. 7, 2006). Further reports by National Public Radio, the Weekly and other media outlets revealed that Kerr had failed to properly register his nonprofit Snowball Express with the IRS, lied on his résumé and was previously homeless and a drug addict. Kerr left the Snowball Express after its 2006 launch, and the noble cause successfully continues in abler hands.
Kerr has kept a relatively low profile since then, emerging only to get arrested last year for driving under the influence of alcohol. But, sources tell the Weekly, for the past month, Kerr has visited the boardrooms of Southern California corporations, pitching the Gratitude in Motion campaign in a quest for mucho moolah. The Weekly obtained a copy of the proposal, which places greater emphasis on raising the profile of donors instead of fulfilling its intended mission.
It promises prospective sponsors "enhanced relationship opportunities" with politicians and "offers a great return on investments" by "associat[ing] their brand with the essence the American spirit [emphasis in the original] of taking care [of] and honoring those who serve defending our freedom" and "increas[ing] sales and traffic through proven cause-marketing techniques." Apparently lost in his own maze of corporate-speak, Kerr misidentifies the Tustin blimp hangar as standing on the former El Toro Marine Corps base.
There are five levels of sponsorship for Gratitude in Motion. The most expensive—a two-year, $3 million commitment—promises "predominant media exposure and opportunities." The lowest rung, "Supporters of Service," sets interested companies back $75,000 per year and does not include the right to use the Gratitude in Motion logo or even the chance to "host external events under the Gratitude in Motion umbrella"—a group would have to pledge $500,000 or more per year to get that honor. In fact, all the "Supporters of Service" earn is a mention on the Gratitude in Motion website.
The website (www.thankourheroes.org) doesn't mention Kerr, but the domain was originally registered to his wife, Jeannie. (The site was transferred to another name shortly after the Weekly began investigating this story.) It is not registered with the state or the IRS as a 501(c)3 or as a private company, but instead is a "project" of the 1st Marine Division Association Scholarship Fund, an Oceanside-based nonprofit.
The Weeklytried to contact Kerr for an interview; Gratitude in Motion spokesperson Angie Starr responded instead. Kerr is merely an "enthusiastic volunteer" for the organization, according to Starr, who "appreciates all the sacrifices our troops have made. We welcome anyone with a like-minded vision to join the campaign." She doesn't think Kerr's involvement will hinder the effort "at all."
But Gratitude's connection with Kerr has already scared off initial supporters. Kerr approached Metrolink, whose trains Gratitude in Motion sought to drape with their message; they passed.
"Kerr's relationship with the project was not mentioned in the material Gratitude in Motion provided us," says Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell. "We were initially inclined to support the project. When we learned of his involvement, we withdrew support."
"We're going forward," Starr tersely replied when asked to comment about Metrolink's rejection. "We don't need—it doesn't really matter."
Such skittishness doesn't surprise many of the people who previously worked with Kerr. Mamie Yong Maywhort of San Juan Capistrano sits on the board of directors for Homefront America Inc., a nonprofit that assists military families while their sons and daughters are away on combat. She was an early supporter of the Snowball Express and processed donations for Kerr. He ignored her advice about properly filing with the IRS; Maywhort quit in frustration.
"Knowing the Mike Kerr that I know," says Maywhort, "I would not engage in any activity with him. And I would caution anybody that works with him that they need to do their research."