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Thursday, May 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Autism in the Family, My Foot, State Says

SEATTLE (CN) - Autism Awareness United and a marketing group lied about where charitable donations go, claimed paid workers were volunteers, and encouraged them to tell donors they have an autistic family member "regardless of whether that is true," Washington's attorney general claims in court.

Autism Awareness United aka Autism Awareness Washington, and commercial fundraiser Encore Marketing Group also failed to register with the Secretary of State, the attorney general claim in King County Court.

The state also sued Joseph W. Searles and his wife, Rena R. Searles, who control the alleged charity.

The defendants took out ads seeking "fundraising representatives" who would be paid $80 to $100 per day, the state says in its complaint. They were paid from cash collected in donation buckets, but were told to tell donors they were volunteers, according to the complaint.

"AAU solicits donations at tables set up outside retail establishments such as liquor and grocery stores," the attorney general says. "Donors make cash donations into a 'bucket' or purchase small trinkets or raffle tickets. AAU solicitors tell donors and potential donors that their donations will help families with autistic children in the local community. Defendants instruct and/or encourage solicitors to tell donors and potential donors that 100 percent of donations go to help families with autistic children even though that is not true. Through instructing new solicitors to observe and imitate experienced solicitors, defendants encourage new solicitors to tell donors and potential donors that they have somebody in their family with autism, regardless of whether that is true.

"Defendants pay solicitors out of the cash collected in the donation bucket at the end of each day. Despite this, defendants instruct solicitors to tell donors and potential donors that they are volunteers.

"Individual defendants Rena R. Searles and Joseph W. Searles have participated in hiring and training solicitors, as well as the day-to-day operations of AAU."

Joseph, the president of AAU, and Rena, a director, have directed the company's solicitation in at least eight counties in Washington, the state says.

The Searles previously solicited donations for the Washington Fire Fighters' Association and The Autism Society of Washington but failed to register as commercial fundraisers with the state, according to the complaint.

Autism Awareness United solicited funds on behalf of Autism Family Support Foundation and also failed to register with the state, according to the attorney general.

The state claims the defendants violated the Charitable Solicitations Act by making misleading statements, failing to register and failing to maintain accurate books and records. It seeks a permanent injunction, civil penalties of up to $2,000 per violation, and restitution for donors.

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