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Special Olympics volunteer questions where $50,000 gift for Cottage Grove went

Register-Guard - 8/8/2018

Aug. 08--Michele Portmann died prematurely, struck by a pickup truck while cycling, at age 61. But the longtime Cottage Grove High School counselor already had made detailed plans for her $500,000 estate: Three-quarters of it was earmarked to charitable causes near to her heart in her own city, including a $50,000 gift in 2012 to the Cottage Grove/Creswell branch of Special Olympics Oregon.

For the local branch, which typically spends only a few hundred dollars a year, the donation was a game-changer, potentially sustaining it for decades.

But with Special Olympics Oregon in the midst of financial turmoil this year, the bulk of Portmann's earmarked donation for Cottage Grove, supposed to be held in trust by the statewide organization, apparently has evaporated, according to local volunteer Carmen Eberle Dowell.

In recent weeks, Special Olympics Oregon has canceled its 2018 summer and fall games and 2019 winter games because of financial problems. It also has laid off some of its paid staff. The organization had a net loss of $325,000 on revenues of more than $4 million in 2016, the most recent annual report made public. It hasn't yet filed its 2017 report with the IRS.

Documents provided by Dowell show that Portmann willed the money specifically to the local branch; that the statewide nonprofit organization accepted the funds on behalf of the Cottage Grove branch; and that, as of January 2017, the local branch still had $50,500 in its individual fund. The statewide organization is the custodian of all the money for its local branches across Oregon. It then reimburses branches from their individual accounts when they need to spend money.

But Dowell says that when she started asking questions about Portmann's funds this summer, after Special Olympics Oregon announced a freeze on all spending, she got a series of contradictory and alarming answers.

At first, Dowell says she was told a separate account for the funds was never created, and the money was simply placed in the statewide organization's general fund and spent.

"They told me to keep quiet, to help the organization rebuild and stay positive," she said.

Then, after she started reaching out to media outlets this week, Dowell said Special Olympics Oregon officials called to tell her that they had located some of the funds -- $14,000 -- and that the rest had already been spent by the local branch.

"There's simply no way we spent that amount in 18 months," she said, pointing to branch balance sheets that show limited annual expenditures. The Cottage Grove branch puts on events for about 40 athletes, Dowell said, adding that all of the events are staffed solely by volunteers and often held in facilities they use for free.

Dowell, who was named Special Olympics Oregon's volunteer of the year in 2016, said the situation had caused her to lose faith in an organization that she's been involved with for a decade. She's organized a local protest in Cottage Grove on Wednesday afternoon to draw attention to the situation.

"How can I encourage the families of (Special Olympics participants) to contribute financially to this organization when I don't trust them myself?" she said. "This has really saddened and shaken me."

Special Olympics Oregon declined to directly address Dowell's accusations in a written statement.

"Special Olympics Oregon has actively reached out to (Dowell) to share all available information, including an explanation of balances as reflected in the 2012-2016 audited financial statements (2017 in process)," the statement reads. "Special Olympics Oregon and its newly installed CEO, Britt Carlson Oase, are committed to achieving greater transparency and education moving forward."

"Special Olympics Oregon is executing a recovery plan that will, in time, return (it) to the level of training and competition that our athletes deserve," it continued.

Portmann's sister, Marsha Yancell, said Tuesday that the donation was clearly intended to go to programs just in Cottage Grove.

"She left nothing for any national organizations; it was all local," Yancell said. "Cottage Grove was her home for a very long time. It meant everything to her."

Yancell said it feels like her sister's money was "stolen," and she is hoping that Special Olympics Oregon will provide restitution to the Cottage Grove branch, even if it has to be spread out over several years because of its financial struggles.

"My sister would be livid and pounding on people's doors about this," she added.

Local attorneys said Tuesday that whether Yancell and the Cottage Grove branch have a legal case, based on Portmann's will, likely depends on Special Olympics Oregon's governing charter or bylaws. Those organization-specific rules usually define the exact financial relationship between the parent organization and its satellite groups, they said.

"It might be legitimate if the organization's structure is set up that way," said Michael Cooper, an estate planning attorney in Eugene.

Another local estate attorney, Richard Huhtanen, agreed that it's possible that re-purposing the donation may be legally defensible, depending on Special Olympics Oregon's charter.

But, he added, "from a common sense, fairness and public relations perspective, this doesn't make any sense. The optics are abysmal. It's enough to make people queasy."

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(c)2018 The Register-Guard (Eugene, Ore.)

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