How Did the Santa Ana Police Chief's Neighbor Become the Head of the City's Cop Charity?
Last summer, several Santa Ana Police Explorers toiled under the Southern California sun for days in an effort to raise money for their program. The mostly teenage volunteers and aspiring cops sold Fourth of July fireworks, managing every aspect of the operation: sales, advertising, even guarding the stand during off hours. For their labor, they expected roughly $10,000 of profit, according to police sources that asked to remain anonymous. The money was to be spent on various program expenses, including a movie night for the cadets.
To make the donations legal, however, the Explorers first had to hand the cash to the Santa Ana Police Foundation (SAPF), a nonprofit run by Orange resident Bill Cunningham that raises money for the department. Although it played no role in the fund-raising, SAPF seems to have won a nice commission, returning just $2,500 to the Explorers.
"The Explorers worked the entire thing," one source said. "Cunningham didn't do anything. He just collected the money. These kids, they're trying to find something to do, to stay off the streets. To have them exposed to something like that, I'm worried they won't want to get into law enforcement."
Founded in 2009, the SAPF's mission is to "bring police, business and youth together for a safer community, with programs funded by donations, grants and special events." The nonprofit collects donations made by the community destined for the police department to help fund projects they say would otherwise be unfunded—youth programs, police honor guard, mounted police, business training—as well as purchase new dogs and body armor for the K-9 unit.
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But in attempting to accomplish that mission, a growing choir within the Santa Ana Police Department (SAPD) claims the foundation has lost direction, benefiting Cunningham more than any police programs.
From 2011 to 2012, IRS documents show the SAPF collected $238,962 from individual donations and grants, distributing $78,527 in grants during the same period. Instead of going to the police department, the rest of the money went to overhead, including bank fees, event expenses, transportation costs and paying salaries. (Normally, overhead of more than 10 percent or 20 percent is considered excessive; SAPF's 67 percent is off the charts.) During the same time period, Cunningham was scheduled to earn $153,000, according to an employment contract obtained by the Weekly, although IRS documents claim he earned roughly $90,000.
Between 2011 and 2012, three members of the organization's board voiced their concerns over the foundation's finances, then left their seats. According to a Weekly source, three more left at the end of 2013. Also that year, the foundation experienced an early drop in donations, ending the first 10 months of the year in the negative, according to internal documents acquired by the Weekly. During the same time period, Santa Ana Police Chief Carlos Rojas—who happens to be Cunningham's neighbor—reiterated to his department that the foundation was the only organization cleared to receive funds on behalf of the SAPD.
"The way the foundation came about was that we really didn't have any mechanism to accept donations other than going to the City Council," says Rojas, who is a non-voting member of the SAPF's board of directors. "I did some research on police foundations. Early on, I said, 'Okay, hey, it can't be someone in the police department that's out there soliciting donations,' and I don't want my staff soliciting donations—I don't think it's right.
"So what mechanism do we use so we can fund some of these things that aren't funded in the city budget?" Rojas continued. "I had thrown that idea out to Bill Cunningham, and then he ran with it and set up the foundation."
Rojas also threw his support behind SAPF's largest fund-raiser, a well-attended dinner and movie debut with tickets running $100 apiece and all proceeds going to the foundation. The event featured appearances by Moms' Night Out star/country singer Trace Adkins, but it was staffed largely by Santa Ana Explorer cadets and featured appearances by SAPD's K-9, CSI, SWAT and mounted units—all at no cost to the SAPF. Rojas says the participation by the units was in line with their participation with other nonprofits.
While the event went well, the requirement to use SAPF to raise funds forced some officers to change their plans. "A few officers were organizing a 5k to raise funds for gas and uniforms for the Baker-to-Vegas run," says a police source. (The Baker to Vegas Race is an annual 120-mile relay run by more than 200 California law-enforcement agencies; Santa Ana regularly fields a team that finishes in the top five.) "That's when the chief steps in and says they have to use [Cunningham] for any fund-raising efforts. Cunningham said he wasn't going to do any advertising or anything but was going to keep 60 percent of the money. The officers ended up canceling the fund-raiser."
Not even Rojas is completely happy with the foundation. "[It's] not a very successful nonprofit at the end of the day," he says. "From my standpoint, we would like to see a lot more grants than what we're getting now."
In an interview with the Weekly, Cunningham declined to speak about his SAPF compensation. But according to his employment contract, in the past five years, he has earned $217,125 at the rate of $45 per hour, so much money that the foundation is having trouble paying him. It currently owes him $119,965—$100,000 of which Cunningham has agreed to waive if it were spent on an insurance-type policy with a listed beneficiary of the William and Holly Cunningham Family Trust, according to the contract. He also receives a per diem of $500 per month for business expenses, including travel, training and membership dues.
Meanwhile, Cunningham is also CEO of Santa Ana-based Business Emergency Response Training International (BERT), which teaches businesses what to do in the event of a large-scale emergency; it received $19,773 from the SAPF in 2012, according to IRS documents. Several of BERT's paid classes are taught at the SAPF's headquarters at the Centennial Park Joint Police Training Facility, a building owned by the city that the foundation uses free of charge in exchange for maintaining the facility.
Cunningham says BERT, which was initially a part of SAPF but was spun off when he started to get requests from businesses outside of Santa Ana, is currently awaiting a 501(c)(4) nonprofit designation and has only used on-duty personnel during free-to-the-community programs. "BERT classes are taught by first responders, both retired and active," he says. "The only thing we do with on-duty personnel is provide a free module class on active shooters. That is open to the community."
He expressed shock that anyone would allege he's enriching himself at the expense of funding important volunteer programs such as the Explorers, not to mention body armor for police dogs. "It's unfortunate that someone that's misinformed is going to bring these kind of allegations and bringing false impressions," Cunningham said. "We've done so much good work in the community—why someone would want to do this is beyond me."
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