Following our three-part exclusive investigation into the so-called Hurricane Ian ‘benefit concert,’ Hertz Arena announced on Facebook this evening, “Mercy Me and Matthew West Disaster Relief Benefit Concert has been postponed. We apologize for any inconveniences. Refunds will be available at point of purchase.”
Many of you asked us to keep digging into the event scheduled for Sept. 21 at Hertz Arena. In a WINK News exclusive, the event organizer admitted to Investigative Reporter Céline McArthur that he’s putting the proceeds into his private company’s bank account.
“Sponsor money and the ticket sales go to my for-profit production company because we had to work with a for-profit company and did not have time to, you know, start a new one specifically for the event,” said Joe Knopp.
Céline’s reporting prompted Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody and the Lee County Sheriff’s Office Economic Crimes Unit to investigate. It also drove a national Christian charity to back out of the event. But her work isn’t over. Now, Céline is talking to lawyers and elected leaders to find out what must happen next.
To find out what’s really going on, we need to follow the money. Find out where it is now, exactly how much has been raised in donations and ticket sales, and how it’s moving from places like Ticketmaster into the hands of people in our community who need it. While Florida’s attorney general and local law enforcement do their digging, I’m doing mine. I ask two legal experts to weigh in.
The promotional video begins with concert video of two Christian performers on stage with the following announcement: “MercyMe and Matthew West together in concert for the first time!”
The two brought together by Ohio filmmaker and entrepreneur Joe Knopp.
“I have to be careful saying this, but I don’t do this,” said Knopp. “I have never done an event of this magnitude before.”
I dug into Knopp’s concert claim and corresponding website, DisasterReliefBenefit.com, and discovered critical information missing, like What is Disaster Relief Benefit?
Knopp: “So, that’s, to be completely fair, this relief benefit is an organization…”
Céline: “So Disaster Relief Benefit is an actual organization? I looked it up and I don’t see a record of it.”
Knopp: “It’s, to be honest, I mean, it’s, I’m trying to… I have to talk to my attorney who put together… it’s not a 501(C)(3), and it’s not incorporated. So it’s basically, I guess, it’s a trademark name that we’re using for the website itself.” He added, “We didn’t have time to incorporate to actually do the paperwork for the 501(c)(3).”
Fort Myers Attorney Scot Goldberg isn’t buying Knopp’s “no time” story.
“I could go to my office and go on Sunbiz and set up a new corporation as a 501(c), and have an EIN number, probably by tomorrow, paying a very nominal amount,” said Goldberg, “so I think, you know, when you start seeing flags like this, it’s a problem.”
And not the only problem. On his website, Knopp claims the net proceeds of the concert will go to organizations offering disaster relief.
“He can pay his vendors and he can pay himself, and there’s no transparency to what they’re getting, or what they should get or what percentage. It’s not that hard to outline the costs,” said Goldberg.
Knopp would not break down those costs for me. Goldberg fears Knopp’s confession of putting proceeds into his personal business bank account may protect him.
Goldberg: “It’s possible that there’s nothing illegal about it. That’s the worst part.”
Goldberg: “He’s coming out and saying, listen, I have the ability to spend the money the way I want to.”
I then showed Goldberg the image below. Knopp continued to list “Disaster Relief Benefit” as a nonprofit organization online.
“That’s a problem for him,” said Goldberg. “That’s a bigger problem than anything else I’ve seen.”
I asked him to explain.
“Well, if you’re claiming to be a nonprofit, and you’re claiming to sell tickets, and those tickets are tax deductible, they’re tax deductible, if it’s a nonprofit,” said Goldberg. “They’re not tax deductible if you’re for-profit.”
He believes Lee County leaders need to investigate.
“Our county commissioners should be looking into this, as soon as they heard your first report,” said Goldberg.
I reached out to all the members of the Lee County Commission. No response.
I reached out to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. No response.
Former Florida Governor, lawyer and current United States Senator Rick Scott, who lives in Naples, tells me he’s concerned.
“We need to know where the money is going to go,” said Scott. “So you guys are doing the right thing. You’re asking the right questions, because if this is going to help Southwest Florida, you’d have to know it’s actually going to help Southwest Florida, so I’m appreciative of what you guys are doing.”
Senator Scott said Attorney General Moody and Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno need to figure out if Knopp broke any laws.
“Now if, look, if he, if he’s completely transparent, right, and people want to give you money, I mean, that’s all great. But if you suggest that you’re doing something different, then that’s where you violate the law,” said Scott.
As for the net proceeds, Scott said operating costs for any charitable event, regardless of who’s running it, should be transparent and low.
“Before I ran for governor, I was involved in the United Way, and that’s one thing United Way always bragged about, is how their operating costs were really, really, really low,” said Scott, “so the money went out, and then they were transparent about where the money went, which is what you should do.”
Goldberg notes the silver lining to our investigation.
“We’re finding out about this before it happens,” said Goldberg. “Usually we don’t find out about it until after it happens, and so the reporting on this is incredible in the sense that we might have a way to turn this around.”
Since the National Christian Foundation backed out, Knopp is now using Charityvest, a 501(C)(3) platform for charitable giving accounts. Charityvest has a spot on the Disaster Relief Benefit website to collect donations. However, CEO Stephen Kump admitted to me they were not asked to manage the money from the ticket sales, which is the bulk of the proceeds.
“I can only speak to the portion that charity Vest is touching,” said Kump, “but certainly it’s a great step that they are driving transparency around the dollars that are ultimately going to be delivered, so either through Charityvest or another organization, or sort of another means, they are going to deliver the net proceeds, ultimately to charity, but whether it does or not, we have their commitment that they will be public about the final net proceeds that are delivered.”
Céline: “When you say that there’s a commitment, is there a legal document? Is there a contract that guarantees that?”
Kump: “No, there’s not in this case.”
Remember, Knopp told me the money from ticket sales will go into his for-profit production company’s bank account. I reached out to him to see if that has changed. He has not responded to my calls or emails.
Ticketmaster won’t say how many seats were filled and how much money has been collected, but I’ll keep digging.
Email me if you have something you’d like me to investigate: email@example.com