MIAMI (CBSMiami) – There is a legal fight unfolding in Florida over hundreds of thousands of dollars raised to help Bahamian victims of Hurricane Dorian.
The matter centers on money raised by the former partner of the founder of a major Bahamian charity, The Head Knowles Foundation.
At issue is what the former partner, Lia Head-Rigby, did with more than $217,000 she raised through a GoFundMe effort that raised about $1.5 million after Dorian struck the islands last September.
Dorian tore apart parts of the Bahamas and today people in the affected areas are still struggling. Gina Knowles, founder of The Head Knowles Foundation said the need in areas of the Bahamas is still great.
“It still looks like a bomb went off,” she said. “It’s been 6 months. They have no electricity. They’re eating canned food. They’re living in tents.”
Knowles said her charity, which she and Head-Rigby began as a Facebook group in 2015 to help victims of Hurricane Joaquin, provides aid to those in need.
“In the Bahamas, we are known as disaster relief,” Knowles said.
During an interview with CBS 4 News, Knowles said Head moved to Florida a few years ago and when Knowles formally created her foundation she kept the “Head Knowles” name even though she says Head was not part of the organization.
“When we created The Head Knowles Foundation she had nothing to do with the foundation,” Knowles said. “She’s not a part of it. She’s not on any of the documents.”
Knowles said it was surprising to her that Head started the GoFundMe efforts days after Dorian to raise money. The effort raised more than $1.5 million dollars. At first, Knowles said the money flowed to The Head Knowles Foundation and then it stopped.
“She signed an agreement that all funds would go to Head KnowlesFoundation in the Bahamas,” Knowles said, adding that all of the funds did not go to the foundation.
In a lawsuit filed in Orange County last week, Knowles’ attorneys allege that Head used $2-thousand dollars for personal expenses and more than $200,000 is unaccounted for.
“She sent the first million dollars,” said Knowles’ attorney, Bill Mueller. “What happened? Why did you stop?”
Mueller said after questions were raised about the Dorian donations, Head quickly started her own foundation in Florida.
“It appears from the documents that she was redirecting the money that was raised to her own foundation,” Mueller said.
Another batch of money from the GoFundMe effort — nearly $250-thousand dollars — is frozen at the moment by the payment processor for the website.
In a statement, GoFundMe said, “WePay, our payment processor, does not support direct transfers to the Bahamas. This means the funds were approved to be transferred to the campaign organizer, and former Head Knowles Foundation associate, Lia Head-Rigby’s bank account in the U.S., and then transferred from Ms. Head-Rigby’s account to the Head Knowles Foundation in the Bahamas.”
GoFundMe is stepping up to help and stepping in to fill the gap of the money at issue.
“GoFundMe will donate $217,645 to the Head Knowles Foundation while they try to recover the funds from Lia Head-Rigby,” a spokesperson for GoFundMe said in a statement. “We encourage WePay to release the remaining $246,483 directly to the Head Knowles Foundation. Our goal is to make sure every dollar donated is transferred to the Head Knowles Foundation, as was stated in the campaign.”
Lia Head-Rigby recently spoke to a Bahamian television station and denied the allegations.
“Totally wrong,” she told Eyewitness News Bahamas. “Wonderfully to say I have every receipt. I have everything accounted for. The monies that were spent over here the lion’s share was for all the planes that we sent down full of supplies to Grand Bahamas and the Abacos.”
Knowles, however, says the money — all of the money — was promised to the victims of the Hurricane Dorian and she won’t rest until they get it.
“Why are we dealing with this?” she said. “Just send the money so we can get it where it needs to go.”
A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs confirmed to CBS 4 News that they are investigating the charity established in Florida by Lia Head-Rigby.