Paid promotion deal raises questions about Mark Lunsford's finances

Mark Lunsford says multimillionaire Hank Asher, above, advised him to close his Jessica Marie Lunsford Foundation and now pays him to advocate for tougher sex predator laws nationwide.

Miami Herald (1996)

Mark Lunsford says multimillionaire Hank Asher, above, advised him to close his Jessica Marie Lunsford Foundation and now pays him to advocate for tougher sex predator laws nationwide.

HOMOSASSA — Since his daughter Jessica was raped and murdered in 2005, Mark Lunsford has become one of America's best-known child advocates. With the help of donations to his nonprofit foundation, Lunsford has lobbied nationwide for tougher laws against criminals who prey on children.

But unknown to most, Lunsford has had another source of income for the past two years — a Boca Raton company that could profit from the very child-protection measures Lunsford has sought to enact.

It is the latest revelation about a man who has been hailed as a hero but whose handling of the foundation's finances has also raised questions about the line between advocacy and personal enrichment.

In an affidavit filed in a paternity case, Lunsford disclosed he is paid $4,000 every other week — more than $100,000 a year — by Technology Investors and its multimillionaire founder, Hank Asher.

Asher, who created databases used to track sexual predators and other criminals, is developing new technology to help in the fight against child molesters.

Asked what he does for Asher's company, Lunsford says: "It's not what I do for them, it's what they do for me." The steady pay, he says, enabled him to dissolve his foundation last year and concentrate on what he likes best — lobbying for Jessica's laws, not raising money.

"Mr. Asher wanted to help me because he knew what passion I have," Lunsford says. When the two first met in 2007, Asher "got real teary-eyed and said, 'You have the heart of a fighter.' "

It was Asher, Lunsford says, who persuaded him to drop plans to sue the Citrus County Sheriff's Office over its alleged bungling of the investigation into Jessica's murder. News of the intended suit triggered criticism that Lunsford, 46, was trying to profit from his daughter's tragic end.

"Hank said, 'I understand your anger and I know you want results, but the best thing is to close your nonprofit and focus on legislation.' "

Thus the Jessica Marie Luns­ford Foundation quietly disbanded after just three years. But questions remain about how nearly $400,000 in donations was spent.

'Rock star status'

On Feb. 24, 2005, convicted sex offender John Couey slipped into the Homosassa trailer where Jessica, 9, lived with her father and grandparents. Couey took her to his nearby trailer, raped her and buried her alive.

Immediately after Couey's March 18 arrest and the discovery of Jessica's body, almost $50,000 in donations poured into a trust set up for the Luns­fords at a local bank.

"They wrote to help with our bills or to use however you wish," says Lunsford, who bought a used truck.

Lunsford says some of the money went into the nonprofit foundation he set up that spring with the help of Joe Boles, a nephew who briefly served as a foundation director.

While in Sarasota for a 2005 fundraiser, Boles and a girlfriend got into a drunken, violent fight at a Hyatt hotel. "Blood was literally on all of the walls, furniture and bedding," police said.

The $4,789 in damages were billed to a foundation credit card; Boles disappeared and never repaid the money.

That incident went unnoticed at the time as attention focused on Lunsford's metamorphosis from trucker with a high-school eduction to impassioned child advocate. He helped win quick passage in Florida of the nation's first Jessica's Law, which imposed tougher penalties on child molesters and required many of those released from prison to wear tracking devices for the rest of their lives.

Lunsford moved on, persuading legislators in more than 40 states to pass their own Jessica's Laws. There were fundraising bike rallies, appearances with Oprah and Bill O'Reilly, talk of book and movie deals. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist called Luns­ford "a great man" and donated $63,812 from his inaugural to the foundation.

"It was rock star status," says Cheryl Sanders, a cousin of Luns­ford who served as foundation treasurer.

"He liked that lifestyle. He'd never seen so much money in his life."

In the three years of the foundation's existence, Lunsford drew salaries totalling $118,800 and was reimbursed for travel costs, either by the foundation or by organizations that invited him to speak. Sanders wondered about some of the expenses charged to a foundation credit card — $1,435 for furniture from Kane's, $73 for drinks at Outback after Couey was sentenced to death (the restaurant "comped" the rest of the meal, she says) and gas for travel not related to the foundation.

Sanders says Lunsford also demanded reimbursement for nearly $1,000 in clothing.

"I said, 'Mark, the IRS is going to come on you; you can't do that,' '' she recalls.

"He said, 'F--- the IRS, I'm Mark Lunsford.' That's the day I was finished," says Sanders, who says she resigned as treasurer in October 2007.

Lunsford says he doesn't recall the incident, but denies using foundation money for personal expenses. He says he fired Sanders and paid a Jacksonville firm to "straighten out" what he says was her poor record-keeping.

"I don't know about book-keeping, that's why I hired people," he says.

IRS agents went to Lunsford's house last year, shortly after the dispute over his plans to sue the Sheriff's Office: "They looked over a bunch of stuff," he says, "and asked me to send copies of stuff.'

He says hasn't heard from the agency since it acknowledged receipt of the material. The agency would not comment on whether it is investigating.

Paid to promote

In 2006, Lunsford had a brief agreement with a New York company, AdZone Research, to promote its Online Predator Profiling Service for monitoring Internet chat rooms.

In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, AdZone said it would give the foundation $2,500 a month, 50,000 shares of stock and 1 percent of gross proceeds from the sale of the profiling service.

Lunsford plugged the service on MSNBC and says AdZone made one $2,500 donation. But the deal fell apart after the SEC questioned AdZone's claims to shareholders; the company appears to be out of business.

Lunsford says he rebuffed "plenty" of other for-profit companies before meeting Asher, a board member of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

As a pilot in the '80s, Asher acknowledged flying several cocaine-smuggling flights, but he was never prosecuted. He went on to develop two databases, AutoTrak and Accurint, that provide addresses and other information, making them invaluable tools for police and others that need to track people quickly.

Asher made his databases available to the missing children's center at no charge. He reportedly received $260 million when he sold his company to LexisNexis in 2004 and started Technology Investors.

In a lawsuit last year, LexisNexis claimed Asher was violating a noncompete agreement by developing "revolutionary" tracking technology that he intended to eventually sell. Asher countersued, alleging LexisNexis wanted to keep its monopoly on database searching. Both cases were settled in April.

Asher did not respond to calls seeking comment. Lunsford, who rode in Asher's Mercedes during a media tour of company headquarters in December, says he sees nothing wrong with their arrangement. (It surfaced in a paternity case filed by a Homosassa woman who gave birth to Lunsford's son Roger Davis in 2007.)

Asher and his company "make it possible for me to go to other states, to be able to fly up to D.C. They gave me insurance and a salary and said, 'Fight the fight, Mark, and don't stop.' "

Where did money go?

After dissolving the foundation, Lunsford gave the Citrus County Child Advocacy Center a $17,200 motorcycle trailer that had been donated by a Sarasota woman.

The foundation's other assets included a tour bus once used by actor Sylvester Stallone. Donated in 2006, its value was never determined for tax purposes and the bus was never listed on IRS forms the foundation was required to file.

Lunsford says he sold the bus and banked the money, which he says will be given to charity. However, he says he doesn't remember who bought the bus or what was paid.

Nor does he remember the specifics of some of the foundation's expenditures, including $12,461 in 2006 for "entertainment," $23,700 in 2007 for "machinery and equipment" and $17,887 last year for "office supplies."

"That's all part of the reason for getting out of (the foundation). I just threw up my hands and said, 'Screw it.' "

Lunsford is one of several parents of murdered children who have started charities, only to see them struggle to survive as new tragedies hit the headlines.

Contributions to Florida's Jimmy Ryce Center, which has donated 300 bloodhounds to police agencies since 1996, dropped to $11,000 last year. The late Claudine Ryce took a small salary to run the center, but she and husband Don shunned offers from for-profit companies.

"You just really have to be careful because an organization can end up with a mess and it reflects on the child that the organization was named after," Ryce says.

Marc Klaas, whose daughter Polly was murdered in California in 1993, says he has never been paid by a for-profit company. But he doesn't criticize Lunsford's decision.

"Mark really did a lot of work in his organization by himself and never really had a huge support system. So if Hank Asher is Mark's support system, I could almost understand why he would accept that support and not ask a lot of questions. I think the legacy of his daughter is pretty strong because of the work he's done."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

Paid promotion deal raises questions about Mark Lunsford's finances 11/06/09 [Last modified: Saturday, November 7, 2009 1:04pm]

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