Killing Kid Care
EDITOR’S NOTE: In a previous version of this story, the Observer stated that KTRK reporter Wayne Dolcefino failed to retract an erroneous reports that Kid Care founders Carol and Hurt Porter Jr. had used charity funds to pay property taxes; KTRK did air a retraction. Also, Dolcefino did not win an Emmy award for his reporting. In the print version of this story, the Observer also misidentified the call letters of Dolcefino’s station as KHOU, he worked at the ABC affiliate KTRK. The Observer regrets these errors.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, a group of parishioners from Berean Adventist Church on Houston’s near East Side gathered to fill grocery bags with donated food. It was part of a weekly post-church ritual organized by the Porters—Carol and Hurt Jr. The Porters round up donations from grocery stores and bring the fruits and vegetables to be sorted, bagged and delivered to the neighborhood’s numerous elderly and shut-in residents.
As the group counted out how many bananas, mangoes and yams should go into each bag, Carol and Hurt were lively and engaged. Carol, who’s 64, is a talker anyway, a dynamo of a woman. Hurt Jr. (his father was named Hurt because of the pain his mother suffered during childbirth), who’s 67, was noticeably more voluble here than at home, where his quiet demeanor perhaps shows the effects of the Job-like trial the Porters have lived through for most of this decade.
Until 2002, the Porters headed a nationally prominent charity, Kid Care. Started in the kitchen of their modest northside house in 1984, Kid Care had grown spectacularly, feeding more than 20,000 a month in the nation’s first Meals on Wheels program for hungry children. As donations came in, the program had branched out into delivering health care and providing cultural-enrichment programs for inner-city kids.
Kid Care became well-known in short order. It was named as one of Bush 41’s “Thousand Points of Light”—No. 866. Carol, a lifelong Republican, stood behind Bush 43 in the Oval Office when he signed the Faith-Based Initiatives Act. Kid Care had gone international, recognized as an NGO by the United Nations, where Carol had spoken. Carol was an ABC News “Person of the Week.” Her face, along with those of needy children, adorned billboards all around Houston. A New York Times article called her “the Mother Teresa of Houston.”
By 2002, Carol says she had begun to contemplate life after Kid Care. She had turned the day-to-day operations over to a new executive director and wanted to write a book, hit the speaker circuit, and spread her and Hurt Jr.’s vision of self-empowerment for the poor farther beyond Houston.
Then disaster struck, in the form of muck-raking Houston television reporter Wayne Dolcefino. In September 2002, on the local ABC affiliate, Dolcefino produced the first in a series investigating how Kid Care spent its money. He found plenty that was suspicious: money apparently spent on the Porters themselves—on fancy meals and hair salons, on personal property taxes, on friends and relatives and, as the nail in the coffin, on strip-club outings.
As Dolcefino’s series ended, the Porters were sued by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. The AG’s office shut down Kid Care and ordered another charity for children opened (without the Porters’ involvement) in its place. The IRS joined in, claiming the Porters owed $550,000 for unreported income.
Donations dried up fast. Despite the Porters’ protestations of innocence, almost all of their old supporters fled. Some, no doubt, felt that they couldn’t trust the couple anymore. Others, perhaps, feared getting on the wrong side of Dolcefino, an aggressive reporter best known for bringing down Sylvester Turner, an African-American state representative then running for Houston mayor, with a damaging exposé—timed to run close to election day—that turned out to be anything but a model of fair and thorough reporting. A Texas Supreme Court justice later said that Dolcefino had helped decide the mayoral race by publishing a ginned-up story “knowing that it would create a false impression.”
The Porters’ legal exoneration finally came—proving, Carol says, “we were not crooks.” But by then, Kid Care was gone.
How had a “model charity” fallen so far, so fast? Were the Porters victims of a sensationalistic, ratings-hungry reporter—and an attorney general who too readily accepted his reports as fact? Had their impatience with “bean-counting” and sound business practices doomed them when Kid Care went from a self-funded mom-and-pop charity to one with a $1 million budget and 15 employees? Was Kid Care poorly served by a board of directors who didn’t exercise enough oversight? Or were the Porters brought down by the size of their ambitions for Kid Care—to not just feed hungry kids, but draw them out of the cycle of poverty?
The answer, in all cases, is yes.
Carol and Hurt Porter both grew up in families that routinely offered helping hands to people down on their luck. She came from a middle-class, black Republican clan, growing up mostly in Brooklyn and on army bases in Germany. Her father was a career soldier. A generous one, as she tells it; Carol recalls seeing her parents sharing food with hungry Germans in the early 1950s. According to a Kid Care pamphlet written by Carol, Hurt’s mother, when he was growing up in Pittsburgh Pa., took in homeless folks to help them “get on their feet.”
Their monthly mortgage was around $300. Between Hurt’s well-paying job, Carol’s now part-time work as an RN, and a third source of income—overseeing nutrition levels at “day homes” (day care centers in private homes) for the Texas Department of Agriculture—they had enough money to live simply but well, and to begin a systematic feeding program, paid for at first out of their own pockets.
They began with a nearby apartment complex, where Carol says they found “Third-World conditions.” Working from their kitchen table, they bought food, made sandwiches, and distributed them in the complex to hungry kids and adults.
At that point, the Porters say they had an experience that deepened their desire to do their charitable work without government help. In the mid-’80s they won a government contract to run a summer food program in Houston. Carol chafed at the bureaucratic restrictions. “You had to put milk in front of the child whether they wanted it or not,” she says. “But a lot of African-American kids don’t drink milk, and I wasn’t allowed to send the milk home, so I wound up having to throw milk away.” They also weren’t allowed to offer food to adults, no matter how hungry.
Around that same time, Hurt was noticing how few men they saw living in the apartments they served. Welfare, they believed, was a major part of the problem: Mothers couldn’t collect if there was a man in the house; that, in the Porters’ view, was encouraging fatherless households.
Hurt asked his vendors and food donors to offer low-skill jobs, such as night-watchman positions, for neighborhood men who wanted to work. His efforts weren’t exactly systematic. He responded to opportunities as they presented themselves. A man wanted to start a lawn-mowing service to support his family, so Kid Care (the name they’d given themselves for their Department of Agriculture work) bought him a lawn mower. The man repaid the loan, then returned as a Kid Care volunteer.
As their efforts branched out, the Porters weren’t keeping careful records. They were simply running from crisis to crisis. Carol estimates that after five years, they had gone through $100,000 of their own money, including an inheritance from Carol’s mother. They’d gone through five used cars, they say, due to their busy delivery routes. They’d taken out most of their furniture so they could plug in more refrigerators and freezers. They needed support. But the Porters, both “fiscally conservative” Republicans after Hurt converted from being a self-described “liberal Democrat,” still didn’t want to go to the government.
“That’s when we started seeking publicity,” Carol says.
Norm Uhl, a reporter for the local CBS affiliate, began covering the Porters in the early ’90s. Uhl, now the news director for the Houston ISD, remembers seeing kids “eating like they hadn’t seen food in days.”
Donations and volunteers started pouring in as the media gave Kid Care gleaming PR. Carol didn’t get a salary as Kid Care took off, but Hurt started getting $25,000 a year. That allowed him to cut back on his metalworking hours, but still left the Porters enough savings that they could send their son abroad for a summer in Spain. Carol wanted poor children to have similar horizon-expanding experiences.
Using donations and grants, the Porters soon had kids going to summer camps and attending the opera and ballet. Uhl, who had become a Kid Care volunteer, remembers chaperoning a field trip to the Houston ballet. “A four- or-five-year-old African-American girl was sitting on my lap,” he says. “I asked, ‘Would you like to do this [dance] when you grow up?’ ” Uhl says the girl answered, “I can’t. I’m black.” Which is when Houston Ballet’s principle dancer, Lauren Anderson, bounded onto the stage. Anderson was the first African-American woman to be a major U.S. dance company’s female lead. The girl was delighted, Uhl says, and told him, “Maybe I can do this.”
The Porters also arranged for kids to dine at one of Houston’s finest restaurants, Cafe Annie. While serving the kids, Cafe Annie staff members who’d grown up hard but now earned upwards of $80,000 a year as waiters, counseled them on opportunities in the restaurant business.
“I wanted them to be dissatisfied with their lives,” Carol says of the children. “I wanted them to be restless. To want more.”
With celebrity came increased scrutiny. When the Porters moved across the street to a 2,700 square-foot ranch-style house with a fence (for which Carol says they paid $80,000), and when one of the company cars became a Lincoln, some people started to look at them more skeptically. Were the Porters living off Kid Care?
Carol says that a local dealership, which did pro-bono work on Kid Care cars, let them have the Lincoln “dirt cheap.” She admits to one mistake: “We should have told people that we had our own money. We just never thought about it.”
The Porters say they didn’t think about much besides Kid Care. “We were obsessed,” Carol says. “Our house was 24/7 Kid Care. There was no balance in my life. My family was neglected.”
Their son, Hurt III, is now 35. He recently returned from service in Iraq as a Marine Corps medic. He doesn’t miss the charity. “I hated Kid Care,” he says. “Other kids were better taken care of than I was. There’d be Christmas toys that weren’t marked for any family, just sitting there on the floor. But I couldn’t have them. I even had to deliver them to other kids. Because my mother wouldn’t take anything away from Kid Care.”
Kid Care had a glittering board of directors. It included then-District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal (who has since resigned after a sordid scandal involving amorous, racist and pornographic emails); now-deceased former Ambassador Roy Huffington (ex-father-in-law of Arianna Huffington); City Council member Gordon Quan; and bank presidents and other corporate heavyweights.
Some of the Porters’ loyalists say the board was largely filled with people who wanted to be associated with Kid Care, but didn’t want to get their hands dirty. “Some were there to get their exposure rather than [to] help out,” says longtime board member George Williams. Quan, who was eventually dismissed from the board when the Porters accused him of leaking information to Dolcefino, comes to the same conclusion by a different path. It was, he says, a “good-looking board, but everyone was really busy.
“It’s good to have a high-profile board,” Quan says, “but who’s going to do the work?”
Quan was the only former board member other than Williams who returned phone calls about this story. (He denies the leaks to Dolcefino.) According to minutes of board meetings and other documents, friction grew between some board members and the Porters. Several members thought the Porters were spreading their resources too thin, and that Kid Care should concentrate on feeding hungry children. When Carol announced her intention to open the first “non-profit fine dining restaurant” in the large new building Kid Care was about to open, at least one board member stepped down, saying that he couldn’t support further expansion of the charity’s activities. But Carol saw the restaurant, and the profits she believed it would generate, as important steps in continuing to expand Kid Care’s reach.
The Porters and board members alike were increasingly concerned about structural issues. In 2000, Dini Partners, a non-profit consulting group, was brought in to study the charity. Its report called Kid Care “a high performing not-for-profit” that was also suffering from a “not well-defined structure.”
At a 2002 board meeting, held after Dolcefino’s series had begun to air, the board and the Porters discussed Kid Care’s problematic “crisis intervention” program. Money tended to be spent wherever Kid Care staff saw a pressing need—whether it was a one-time school uniform purchase for a needy kid, a birthday party for a Kid Care volunteer who’d never had one before, or private-school tuition for a former Enron employee’s child. “Crisis intervention” was a loosely used term, and it allowed Dolcefino to portray it as a way for the Porters to hand out money according to their personal whims.
Kid Care had other less-than-professional practices when it came to spending money. Carol and Hurt gave employees Kid Care American Express cards so that they could make quick purchases for the charity. The employees (and the Porters) also used the cards for personal expenses, and repaid Kid Care when bill-paying time came.
The Porters acknowledge that the credit card use was a mistake. For one thing, the billing statements provided Dolcefino with an itemized paper trail he used against them.
The Porters say the system worked as long as they had only a few employees whom they personally knew and trusted. The problem is, the Porters thought they could trust everybody. George Williams says, “I used to tell her, “Carol, you can’t open your kimono to everybody.”
While some board members wanted to reform Kid Care practices and move forward, others wanted the Porters out. Williams remembers a meeting in which some members discussed “getting rid of Hurt. They didn’t understand what he did.”These were the waters where Dolcefino made such waves.
In 2001, Carol had stepped down as executive director and hired board member Brad Levy, until then a promotions director at UPN Channel 20, to replace her. One of his first actions appears inadvertently to have led to the Dolcefino investigation. Levy demoted a contract grant writer named Liz Morris, saying she wasn’t keeping proper records on her grants, tellin
her she could stay on to do public
relations. Morris declined the reassignment. Then, according to a variety of documents and depositions, she and Diana Rodriguez, a secretary whom at least one member of the board had been promoting as Carol’s eventual successor, gave several Kid Care ledgers to Dolcefino, who was an acquaintance of Morris’. (Rodriguez has since died. Morris declined to comment.)
Levy’s other big decision was to retrieve the employee credit cards. All of them were turned in except for the one belonging to long-time staffer Rudy Lombarbada, who had been keeping the Kid Care books for several years.
The ledgers showed expensive restaurant meals, hair stylings, and hotel stays for Carol Porter and others—including Porter relatives—all charged or billed to Kid Care.
When Dolcefino began his investigation, he contacted Kid Care donors and supporters and let them know that he was looking into the way the charity spent its money. Before Dolcefino aired his first report, Kid Care’s donations had plummeted to the point where it was almost out of money and had drastically cut back on operations.
This is when the drama of Kid Care blossomed into full public view and the one-sided war of words between Carol and Dolcefino began.
Carol made a series of awkward media appearances in which she tried to take the offensive. Levy says now that she “probably should have had some media coaching” before taking to the airwaves. In one particularly damaging exchange, Carol told an interviewer she was “insulted” by the board’s recent proposal to pay her a salary of $30,000, after she had spent the previous 18 years working without a salary. (Hurt was making $50,000 at this point.) She responded angrily to the interviewer’s question of “How much do you think you should be paid?”
“You couldn’t afford me,” she said. “I brought in millions, I should get more than $100,000.”
At this same time, the Porters’ pro bono attorney, Loren Klitsas, who normally specializes in personal injury law, says his firm was struggling to keep up with Dolcefino’s requests for documents. “He was very aggressive. We couldn’t get the documents to him fast enough. We were trying to comply. But the Kid Care records were terrible. With Carol and Hurt, it was never, ‘let’s don’t give it to him,’ it was ‘let’s try to find it.’ But we were trying to find needles in haystacks.”
Klitsas, for his part, says he has no doubt of the Porters’ innocence. “I’ve had 10,000 clients, and they all say they’re innocent. I believed them [the Porters]. But they weren’t savvy. It was shocking to them that somebody would make a disparaging remark.”
But, even though it was clear that Kid Care was going to take a hit, few would have predicted the cataclysm to come. On Sept.12, 2002, the Houston Press wrote, “It seems likely that things will get worked out at Kid-Care—through more stringent overview by the board of directors, for instance, as it keeps an eye on an organization that has grown haphazardly in 18 years from a shoestring operation to a large entity.” The Press concluded, “Eventually Dolcefino’s report will air, probably being old news by that point.”
Instead Dolcefino’s series ran to 40 installments. He showed money being spent on Italian tile for the new building’s floor, rather than on sandwiches. When an enthusiastic Carol remarks on camera, “It’s the same floor as the ballet,” Dolcefino strongly implies that she’s more interested in fancy floors than in feeding kids. (She says she’d gotten discounted tiles.)
Dolcefino also reported that Kid Care funds had gone to pay for the Porters’ property taxes. When another station demonstrated this charge was untrue, Dolcefino issued a retraction. Then there was “the show that killed us,” according to Carol—Kid Care money being spent at the Gold Cup strip club.
The segment begins with disco music and a soft-focus video of a woman doing a pole dance. Dolcefino says that Kid Care employees are spending donated money there. “I’d have hated us too, if I’d seen that,” Carol says.
The Porters and Levy say they discovered Lombarbada was using the company credit cards on strippers one night when they were poring over documents, trying to find other questionable activities Dolcefino might come after. Levy discovered a number of charges to an innocuous-sounding organization. When he called American Express to find out what the organization was, he learned the business behind the nondescript name was the Gold Cup.
Levy and the Porters panicked. They knew how damaging this information would be if Dolcefino uncovered it. They finally decided to contact Dolcefino and tell him about the strip club charges, hoping he would turn his focus away from Kid Care and to the employee who was misappropriating funds.
Dolcefino did report that Lombarbada was the Gold Cup culprit, but he buried his name in the report. The Porters and Levy say Dolcefino created the false impression that it was the Porter men who charged lap dances on the company card.
Levy denies that there was any merit to Dolcefino’s charges. Even if there had been, he says, the coverage was out of proportion. “No local story in the history of [Houston] broadcasting has generated so many stories.” Levy sees racism at work. “Everything she had accomplished went out the window when Wayne reported. They [the Porters] were lazy, living off welfare, gaming the system. Horny black men going to a strip club—be very afraid.”
As things came unglued, the board and the Porters agreed to hire local accountant Larry Mosely to audit the 2001 books. Mosely says he found “some accounting problems,” but that he judged them “typical of non-profits,” posing no real cause for alarm. About Dolcefino’s reporting, Mosley says now, “It was an over-reaction and a mischaracterization. She [Carol] took the staff and volunteers for a $600 meal at a restaurant [among other such expenses]. That’s a very appropriate reward for a non-profit.”
The local CBS and NBC affiliates reported Carol Porter’s response that the audit was a vindication of Kid Care and of the Porters themselves. Dolcefino didn’t see it that way. He dismissed the audit, asking “who chose” the receipts that Mosley inspected.
Dolcefino signed off ominously, saying that Kid Care was “still under investigation” and that the IRS would soon be on the Porters’ case.
Not to mention Attorney General Greg Abbott.
When the allegations against Kid Care began, Hurt Porter says he “wanted to punch somebody,” but held his tongue. He felt sure that he and Carol would be vindicated.
But then Attorney General Greg Abbott, at a press conference, announced lawsuits against the Porters and Kid Care, declaring that the affair represented “the worst case of charitable abuse in 10 years in the State of Texas.” His office, at that time, was in the early stages of its investigation and had not yet deposed the Porters.
In April 2004, after some intricate legal maneuvers, the attorney general dropped the Porters from his lawsuit, but continued to sue Kid Care as an entity. The Porters claimed this development as a vindication, albeit not a very satisfactory one.
Forensic CPA Michael Jayson, an unpaid member of Carol’s legal team (Hurt had separate pro bono counsel), says that the attorney general finally realized he didn’t have a case against the Porters. The decision came after three days of depositions. Transcripts of the depositions show the attorney general’s investigator, Susan Stericka, asking questions that indicated a less-than-thorough investigation. She asked why the Porters had charged around $30,000 in gasoline one year. Carol answered that it was the gas for the trucks and delivery routes. The investigator also asked why they had bought so many mattresses in 2001. Carol reminded her that Tropical Storm Allison had massively flooded the city. Kid Care had helped people replace their lost bedding.
So it went. Almost every time the investigator asked Carol about what looked like an extravagant expense, Carol was able to explain how the expense benefited Kid Care clients. They bought clothes for poor people to wear to job interviews. They styled women’s hair before interviews. They bought cell phones so people would be able to give prospective employers a phone number.
Finally the investigator returned to the question that the Porters had been trying to answer for years. Didn’t Kid Care have the narrow mission “to feed children”? Carol answered, “You can’t just look at the child. Who is the caregiver? What are their needs? So that they can help the child to grow. That’s what made Kid Care so different than anybody else.”
The Kid Care mission statement was entered into the record. It included the promise that Kid Care would “address the food, clothing, educational and cultural exposure needs of the children.”
The grueling deposition, which included Carol giving the investigator a neck massage, did expose weaknesses at Kid Care. When asked why, as CEO and executive director, she didn’t know the criteria to decide if a person was going to be paid as contract labor or as an employee, and why she hadn’t withheld employee taxes when her CPA told her to, Carol answered, “It wasn’t my focus. My focus was just raising money and feeding kids.”
Not long after the deposition, Judge Rose Spector told the attorney general to either set a trial date or drop the Porters from the lawsuit. Abbott’s office chose the latter. The investigator released a statement that “the evidence … could suggest that Carol and Hurt Porter Jr. did not engage in any intentionally malicious or fraudulent conduct.”
They found further vindication in another action by Judge Spector. The day after the Porters were dropped from the suit, the attorney general issued an injunction which established the new charity (then called New Kid Care, now Kids Meals) and prohibited the Porters from having any association with that charity. The judge crossed out those provisions of the injunction without comment. Legal observers say it’s reasonable to assume that the judge felt the attorney general had not proven his case against the Porters.
The building the Porters bought (with a grant) and remodeled, sometimes by hand, over a 10-year span was handed over to Neighborhood Centers, the non-profit that operates the building today. Kids Meals is a Neighborhood Centers’ tenant, along with various other social-service organizations. Today Kids Meals serves around 1,200 children a day.
The attorney general declined to answer questions for this article, on the grounds that it was a “very old case.” A spokesperson told the Observer that “the outcome was very favorable to the continued healthy existence of this worthwhile charity [Kids Meals] for children.” Carol Porter is outraged by that. “What about our charity? What about the charity we spent our blood, sweat and tears on? What about the 12 years we spent on that building?”
The Porters’ legal jeopardy was still not over. The IRS claimed they owed $550,000 in back taxes for Kid Care money they’d supposedly spent on themselves.
The Porters found two pro-bono attorneys, Peter Lowy and Juan Vasquez, to take their case. Lowy went through the American Express charges, then matched them with the personal checks the Porters had written to cover expenses that truly were personal. Ultimately, he says he found that the Porters had intentionally overpaid Kid Care. “They wound up giving Kid Care almost $20,000 more than they owed. And they did this without claiming a charitable deduction.”
Lowy says he was puzzled by the IRS’ investigation. “My surmise is that the IRS accepted the Attorney General’s report,” he says. Lowy also says that the IRS “was reluctant” to admit that their numbers were off. But when “we disclosed what we were going to show at trial, it was probably obvious to them that there hadn’t been a very thorough examination at the evaluation level.”
The IRS wound up settling for a little less than $1,000. The Porters insisted that they wouldn’t settle if that implied wrongdoing on their part, so they got a letter from the IRS stating “in agreeing … to settle the cases without litigation, the Porters are not agreeing that any improper expenditures were made.”
That letter was written on Oct. 17, 2007.
Where do things stand almost two years later?
Following KTRK policy, Dolcefino didn’t answer questions for this story. He won an Edward R. Murrow for his Kid Care series.
The Porters now live on less than $2,000 a month from their Department of Agriculture work. Some friends bring them food, others give money. A neighborhood landscaping company paid their property taxes one year. But they still do their weekly food distribution, with former donors Fiesta and Whole Foods giving again.
Loyal supporters were mystified and outraged by the whole affair. Some wondered why board members had never faced legal jeopardy. Her sometimes sardonic son, Hurt III, says, “The big families [the Bushes and others] could have stopped the attacks, but they didn’t.”
Talking in August about what happened to Kid Care, Carol became emotional thinking about the approaching school year. “I think about the kids who didn’t get their summer camp, their uniforms, their school supplies,” she says. “How many kids didn’t go to college, didn’t graduate from high school, because we weren’t there?
“We were making a difference,” she says. “Sometimes it just bothers my heart. Where would we be today if they hadn’t bothered us?”
Houston freelance journalist David Theis is the author of the novel Rio Ganges.
EDITOR’S NOTE: In the print edition, we incorrectly identified the ABC affiliate in Houston as KHOU. It is actually KTRK. The Texas Observer regrets the error.