Updated: Rock Hall Fireworks Committee Under Investigation

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The Maryland Secretary of State is investigating the Rock Hall Fireworks Committee, which for 20 years has raised money for the Rock Hall Volunteer Fire Company by soliciting donations to put on the July 4 fireworks show.

The investigation began earlier this year in response to complaints and inquiries to the Secretary of State’s office from past donors and citizens who’ve unsuccessfully asked the committee’s chair, Art Willis, to open the books on the revenue and expenses to put on the fireworks.

The lead investigator for the Secretary of State’s Office, Michael Schlein, said he would not comment on an ongoing investigation but confirmed that charitable organizations in Maryland must register and sign an affidavit if they raise $25,000 or more in annual charitable donations.

Any organization raising less than $25,000 must file an Exempt Organization Fundraising Notice, Schlein said.

The Fireworks Committee boasts that it has given the fire company more than $300,000 since 1993, which represents the proceeds from the fireworks show after expenses.

The Rock Hall Fireworks Committee is not a registered charitable organization with the Secretary of State – but newspaper ads soliciting donations over the years indicate that contributions to the Fireworks Committee are tax-deductible.

In addition to not registering as a charitable nonprofit, the Secretary of State is looking into whether donations to the July 4 fireworks were re-purposed for other charities without the approval of donors, said a source with knowledge of the investigation who requested anonymity.

Newspaper ads placed by the committee in 2011 and 2012 said that “all unused money” and “excess funds” go to the fire company.  But in 2013 an ad soliciting donations said “money received in excess of the cost for the show is distributed to the Rock Hall Volunteer Fire Company and local charitable organizations.” See Figures 1 -3 below.

Rock Hall Vice Mayor Brian Jones said the Fireworks Committee has yet to disclose the names of the other charitable organizations to receive money.

Jones, who is also the public information officer for the fire company, and has raised the issue at two prior council meetings, said he was personally concerned about donations raised in the name of the fire company since it receives “direct taxpayer support” from Kent County government and the Town of Rock Hall.

Since 2003 the fire company has received about $1.2 million from the county and roughly $100,000 from the Town of Rock Hall. The town also commits personnel and equipment to put on the annual fireworks — and in 2012 made a $250 donation to the fireworks committee.

Jones said the process to put on the fireworks show should be transparent and a full accounting of revenue and expenses for the show should be readily available to donors who request the information.

“The fire company receives much support from taxpayers and donors and they all have a right to a transparent process,” Jones said. “I believe Art Willis and the Fireworks Committee have the best intentions to help the fire company, but these good intentions must come with a high level of transparency. There’s simply no reason why the committee shouldn’t open the records on the amount of money raised and the cost to put on the show, there shouldn’t be anything complicated about this and they should have been keeping accurate records all along.”

Art Willis did not return a call from the Spy by the time this story ran. Art Willis’s son, Rock Hall Mayor Robert Willis, also serves on the fireworks committee.

The Fireworks Committee’s 2013 donation to the fire company after expenses has not been made public. Below are the donations from prior years.

2005 – $28,000
2006 – $25,000
2007 – $27,000
2008 – $28,500
2009 – $18,000
2010 – $14,000
2011 – $12,000
2012 – $12,000

2011

Figure 1

2012

Figure 2

2013

Figure 3

Letters to Editor

  1. Keith Thompson / WCTR says

    Editor,

    Does a citizen complaint filed with the Secretary Of State’s office constitute a significant news story? Are such citizen complaints routine? Does the Secretary of State’s office vigorously investigate every complaint they receive? If I were to file a complaint with the Secretary of State’s office if I suspected a local company of running an illegal March Madness Pool, would this warrant front page news coverage? If the Secretary of State’s office investigates the Rock Hall Fireworks Committee and finds nothing wrong, will there be a follow up story?

    • Gren Whitman says

      Editor,

      With these “straw-man” questions, Mr. Thompson is attempting to trivialize a significant problem for Rock Hall.

      Given serious and legitimate concerns about possible illegalities with respect to the fireworks committee’s finances, the questions should be (1) will the town’s annual fireworks show continue and, if so, (2) how will it be organized and (3) how will the proceeds be accounted for?

      Mr. Thompson can probably feel confident that the Spy will follow up on this report, whatever the outcome of the Secretary of State’s investigation.

      • Keith Thompson / WCTR says

        Editor,

        A thank you to Mr. Whitman for a clarification on the real issue here. So this is not about an investigation over whether or not a charitable organization is following the letter of the law, but its an issue over who controls Rock Hall’s Independence Day Fireworks celebration. The fact that there is concern over (1) whether or not the town’s fireworks show will continue; (2) if it does, how it will be organized; and (3) how the proceeds for the fireworks show will be accounted for tells me that there is an ulterior motive for the complaints. The three questions asked here by Mr. Whitman should be completely irrelevant to the nature of the Secretary of State’s investigation.

      • Editor,

        The recent parade of Rock Hall-related Spy articles reminds me of William Randolph Hearst’s famous comment to artist Frederick Remington with reference to America’s attitude toward Spain in 1898. “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war”.

        The annual fireworks show has been a source of great pride in the community of Rock Hall for many years. Over and over, the event has topped the list of “best of” awards throughout the Chesapeake Bay region. The residential and business community has enthusiastically supported this event in many ways for many years.

        To my knowledge, until now, the question of “serious and legitimate concerns” over finances has never arisen and no evidence of any illicit findings has been cited in this article. One might hope that in the best interest of a small town’s community spirit, a local source of information such as the Spy would highlight more of the positive happenings in Rock Hall. Instead, it seems that whenever Rock Hall is concerned, The Spy would rather fan the flames of discontent and distrust among our community and governmental leaders.

        When what could be a valuable source of information is manipulated to promote a personal agenda, it is demoralizing and insulting to those who truly seek to build a better community.

      • William Ashley says

        Editor,

        I’m making my check out to Art Willis. That’s how much I trust him.

        • susan reinsch says

          Editor,

          I agree with Bill Ashley. We will double our contribution this year and I will volunteer to help stuff envelopes when I return to RH.

    • john lang says

      Editor,

      “A citizen complaint,” by itself, surely would not be a significant news story. Any crank can squawk about the silliest thing — and does. In this case however, the Secretary of State’s office has launched an investigation looking into numerous and ongoing complaints and questions by donors over the years concerning dispersals of sums totaling $300,000. Any local media would be strangely remiss in not treating this as a significant story. If the investigation finds nothing wrong would there be a follow up? Of course there would: that’s news, too.

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