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Tampa pet charity's often repeated claim of a deep-pocketed benefactor raises questions

TAMPA — Month after month, the Tampa animal charity Soaring Paws entices donors with promises their contributions will be doubled, tripled or even quadrupled through limited-time matches from something called the "Amazon Rescue Foundation."

If the generosity sounds incredible, it might be. No such foundation appears to exist in the United States.

Soaring Paws pilot Albert Lonzo Adams III, who flies dogs and cats for rescue groups, declined to further identity the mystery sponsor.

Go back a few years, and he was calling it the "Amazon Wildlife and Rescue Foundation" and the "Amazon Animal Rescue Foundation."

No trace of those, either.

This fuels his critics, who wonder if he isn't making things up.

"I could do the same garbage," fumes one of them, Melody Linsmeier, who operates a boxer rescue program in Wallace, Mich.

"I could jump on my Facebook page and say for 24 hours I have an anonymous matcher, and my people would give."

An agency that oversees charities is looking into Soaring Paws.

Florida's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services reached out to Adams after a March 7 Tampa Bay Times story noted inconsistencies in self-reported revenue.

BACKSTORY: Hero in the sky, pet rescue pilot had troubles on the ground

In his February registration with the agency, Adams reported under penalty of perjury that his program took in less than $25,000 last year. But he listed $49,400 with GuideStar, a nonprofit that tracks charities.

"We have been in communication with them to get supporting and backup information on some of the irregularities," said spokesman Aaron Keller. "The issue most relevant to our department was their reporting of their earnings or their receipts."

Adams, 45, has a soft spot for animals and is an experienced pilot, but one without wings of his own. He relies on donors to keep him in the air with rented planes, at an hourly cost of $200. He has asked supporters to pay for a $130,000 plane, and recently said he was just $30,000 short of that goal.

It's unclear whether he's exaggerating revenue publicly or under-reporting it to authorities, because he won't provide evidence. The IRS does not require detailed accounting from charities that claim to take in less than $50,000, as his does.

His program has had little official oversight since receiving its tax-exempt status in 2014, which troubles some because Adams has three felony convictions in Florida for fraud, one federal.

He initially denied his record but a reporter confirmed it from old court records.

People have not always been able to believe what he says. He once posed as a federal drug agent, court records show. He called himself a doctor while committing fraud with credit cards, and feigned medical authority to obtain drugs.

He told a reporter Soaring Paws never claims to work with Make a Wish, disputing an earlier account. However, as recently as Saturday, a call for donors to fund a flight for the children's charity could still be located in a keyword search on the Soaring Paws Facebook page.

Make a Wish told him in February to stop using its name.

And Linsmeier, operator of For Love of a Boxer Rescue, said she was stunned last August to see Soaring Paws solicit money to fly a dog she knew had already been euthanized, while mentioning her rescue by its former name.

"You started a fundraiser without even talking to us?" she e-mailed Adams. "And people donated $1,500 for a flight that isn't happening, as I e-mailed you yesterday morning at 6:24 a.m. And you post that the dog was kicked?"

Adams said her claim is false.

"Even if it were true, how in the world would she have any idea how much money we raise? She is angry because her request was most likely denied."

Her e-mails show his August explanation, which he doesn't dispute: Two requests had come in at the same time for a boxer with a broken back.

•••

Every charity needs an "Amazon Rescue Foundation."

"Once again Amazon Rescue stepped up," Soaring Paws posted July 22 on Facebook, promising double and triple matching.

"Amazon Rescue Foundation is literally in shock at the response Soaring Paws is receiving to their challenge," came a post Sept. 18.

Jan. 29 brought another "matching donation weekend!"

The Times conducted searches of business and foundation directories, IRS tax-exempt organizations, online public records databases and databases of newspaper and broadcast stories that go back more than 25 years.

No reference was found to Amazon Rescue Foundation, beyond those created by Adams.

A.R.F., the Animal Rescue Foundation created by baseball legend Tony La Russa, has no record of funding Soaring Paws.

Online retailer Amazon.com said it is not affiliated with an Amazon Rescue Foundation.

By virtue of Soaring Paws' tax exempt status, it does get a trickle of proceeds from AmazonSmile, a program in which Amazon.com shoppers may designate a single charity to receive a half-cent on the dollar of purchases.

However, AmazonSmile does not involve a matching program.

Adams gives no explanation.

"We receive matching donations all the time from several different organizations, but as proven by your last story, all you are interested in is butchering companies who help and why would I want to help you do that?" he responded.

The March 7 story did not name companies, although it pictured a Twitter post in which Adams said "Chevy" was helping, a claim too vague to nail down.

The Times asked Adams several times for records of revenue and expenditures, including his tax form from PayPal, but he did not produce them.

"We are a small charity," he wrote in a e-mail. "We do not owe anything to anyone nor can we help everyone. All of our donations are just that, donations. Whether it be via our website or crowd funding sites, we operate within the (bounds) of the law.

"We aren't twisting people's arms. We aren't televangelists nor do we employ professional solicitors. Donors choose to help because they SEE with their own two eyes, the work we do."

Contact Patty Ryan at pryan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3382.

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