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