Even as prosecutors closed in around its founder, the charity at the center of the Penn State child abuse scandal told benefactors there was no truth to rumors that former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky was under investigation, a group of four donors said Thursday.
The four said they became concerned after reading local newspaper accounts this spring reporting that a grand jury was pursuing allegations that Mr. Sandusky had sexually abused children.
When the donors then approached top administrators for the Second Mile, a charity founded by Mr. Sandusky to help disadvantaged children, they were assured the reports were unfounded, they said, and the charity continued to solicit funds from them.
The charity's purported statements to its donors contradict the timeline it laid out last week to explain what it knew and when regarding the Sandusky investigation. Mr. Sandusky himself informed the charity in 2008 he was under investigation. By early 2010, The Second Mile's records reportedly had already been subpoenaed by the grand jury.
"When the news finally came out, it hit us hard," said Tracy Bell, a store coordinator at Family Clothesline, a Penn State souvenir shop located just off the university's campus, which donated more than $50,000 to the charity last year. "We thought we were a part of The Second Mile family, and they lied to us."
Donor outrage is only the latest setback for the Second Mile, one of Central Pennsylvania's largest charities for at-risk youth, as it struggles to survive in the wake of Mr. Sandusky's arrest.
Earlier this week, the organization's longtime CEO Jack Raykovitz resigned, as did several board members, who said they were concerned over the charity's handling of the unfolding case.
Mr. Sandusky stands accused of molesting at least eight boys he met through the Second Mile between 1994 and 2009. He has denied the charges, but the case has already led to charges against two former Penn State administrators and the ouster of the university's president, Graham B. Spanier, and its legendary football coach, Joe Paterno.
In a statement issued last week, the Second Mile said it first became aware of the allegations against its founder in 2008, when Mr. Sandusky himself informed board members that he had been accused of abuse by a boy in Clinton County. He voluntarily agreed to stop working with children.
"Since then, we have done everything in our power to cooperate with law enforcement officials and will continue to do so," the charity's statement said.
But by early this year, news of a wider probe was well-known. According to a Thursday report in the New York Times, the Second Mile by March had received subpoenas from the attorney general's office for Mr. Sandusky's travel and expense records.
Ms. Bell said her business felt concerned enough by the reports to approach Mr. Raykovitz and others at the charity's annual golf fundraiser in June in State College.
"We specifically asked the Second Mile whether there was a grand jury investigation," she said. "They said it was just gossip and rumors. They asked us to make another pledge."
Peter Varischetti, co-owner of the Brockaway-based commercial real estate firm Varischetti & Sons, said his concerns were also rebuffed. His company donated $5,000 last year.
Even those who never specifically asked Second Mile officials about an investigation said they felt the charity ought to have been more forthcoming.
Major benefactors like Bank of America, health insurer Highmark Blue Shield and State Farm have all announced in recent days that they were pulling their support from the program.
As a nonprofit, the Second Mile faced no legal obligation to inform its donors of any investigations that might affect its future. But several nonprofit sector analysts agreed Thursday that its leaders had a moral duty to inform donors of what they knew when asked.
"What they should have done was be open and up front about it," said Laura Otten, director of the Nonprofit Center at La Salle University. "It would have made them look like they were in control of the situation, as opposed to now, where they look like they were lying."