Most donors who give cash to non-profit groups want the bulk of their money spent on the group’s primary mission. But in the case of Roger Lolly and his Fort Myers based If I Can Dream Foundation (IICDF), the “donors” are state taxpayers, the mission is special needs student training, and a large chunk of the state’s money goes straight to Lolly’s pocket.
Last year, Lolly took home more than $187,000 in salary from the foundation, which is entirely funded by tax dollars through a state contract. Now, he is asking Republican voters in South Florida’s 78th State House District to nominate him as their candidate to replace outgoing State Representative Heather Fitzenhagen. On paper, he’s a solid, pro-life conservative. But controversy surrounding the exorbitant salary – far larger than what most organizations of the same size actually pay – could hamper his campaign. The high salary issue is made even more relevant because it is Lolly’s only source of income, and in January of this year he loaned his campaign $115,000 in cash.
Lolly responded to criticisms about the loan, saying they are unfair because the funds came from a joint checking account. He did not elaborate on how the joint account was funded.
He and his wife have a special needs son, who is featured prominently on the campaign’s website. Lolly’s story about their son’s birth is moving and inspirational, and undoubtedly played a role in Lolly’s formation of the If I Can Dream Foundation.
Headquartered in Fort Myers, the organization says its mission is to “recognize and support every person’s right to be included in the life of the community.” Lolly runs the organization from a small office space that he rents for $5,000 per year, according to federal income tax records.
For the past three years, every penny of funding to Lolly’s organization came from a grant administered through the Florida Department of Education. The funds were provided jointly by the state and federal government. The program’s mission: deliver vocational and career training to special needs juveniles and adults between 14-21 years old.
Lolly landed the first of three consecutive state contracts for the program in 2017. In that first year, his foundation received $209,761 to deliver the training. But from that amount, Lolly took home almost half of the funds, over $103,000, as his salary. Another executive hired by Lolly took a salary of $74,000, and he spent $21,000 on rent, office supplies, auto expenses and advertising. Only 91 individuals participated in the program that year, for which Lolly’s foundation collected $2,305 per student.
An examination of If I Can Dream Foundation’s 2018 tax records show Lolly gave himself a substantial raise the next year, bumping his own pay to its current level of $187,029, which in 2018 consumed about 35 percent of the program’s funding.
Records for other foundations providing the same types of services as Lolly’s group are difficult to come by. But the CEO’s of at least two such groups, Jacksonville-based Empowerment of Florida, and A Plus Alliance Support, based near Tampa, don’t pocket anywhere close to the salary that Lolly pays himself. The most realistic comparison is A Plus Alliance, which pays its CEO just $72,000 per year, $110,000 less than Lolly, while A Plus Alliance manages an even larger contract from the state.
When contacted, Lolly declined to address questions about how much he chooses to pay himself, and instead directed his comments toward the importance of his organization’s mission.
“Let’s remember the students we assist are mentally or physically handicapped – sometimes both,” Lolly said. “Our mission is to get them and to keep them employed- which ultimately saves taxpayers money.”
But Lolly’s high salary isn’t the only concern raising the eyebrows of area business leaders and non-profit executives who have talked to Lolly about his foundation and his campaign for state representative, according to sources interviewed by The Capitolist.
Records for the foundation’s 2019 tax year are not yet available, but Lolly appears to have spent a considerable sum on targeted advertising last December promoting himself on a series of billboards that read “Merry Christmas from the Lolly Family” in large, bold lettering, accompanied by a photo of Lolly and his wife, or one with Lolly and his entire family mimicking the Beatles’ Abbey Road album cover..
In one version of the billboard, across the bottom, are the words “Adult Day Training Coming Soon.” But there are no dates or locations listed. There’s not even a website address, nor other clear link to his foundation where special needs families can get more information. As a result, the billboard appears to be promoting Lolly and his wife, not the foundation:
According to a financial disclosure submitted when he filed to run for office, Lolly’s only source of income are the taxpayer dollars he is paid from IICDF. It’s not known whether Lolly paid for the billboards out of his foundation salary, if the foundation itself footed the bill, or, if the billboard was paid for by the same joint checking account used to loan his campaign money.
Another version of the billboard mentions “The Lolly Family of Businesses,” but those “businesses” don’t generate any income for Lolly according to a financial disclosure document he filed earlier this month. In fact, Lolly didn’t bother to list any other business assets anywhere on his candidate financial disclosure.
For 2018, the most recent year for which foundation records are available, all of the cash Lolly spent came from the state. But he didn’t just spend money on advertising or billboards ($21,500). His organization has only two full-time employees: himself and one other person. Yet he spent large sums of money on phone bills ($3,900), auto expenses ($22,650), office supplies, office rent ($5,000), and “philanthropic” giving of $15,000 of the state’s grant money to other organizations.
It’s not clear which organizations got the cash or why.
The tax records also show that he spent $3,600 on a “lunch meeting.” Meanwhile, the foundation only spent $2,200 on lunches for special needs students attending the summer classes.
But before Lolly could justify any spending, he first had to get students to attend the training sessions. The foundation’s Form 990 tax return for 2018 shows that in order to attract the 200 students planned for in the 2018 program, he spent $54,000 on gift cards in $250 denominations that he offered as incentives to the students to try to boost attendance.
It didn’t work.
Only 181 special needs students qualified for the program actually showed up out of the 200 expected, which meant more than $8,000 in gift cards were purchased but not used for the program. Lolly says he gave the extra gift cards away to other students who attended the training but didn’t meet state requirements to qualify for the special needs funds.
“There’s no accounting for what they are doing with the money. That’s very disturbing as a taxpayer,” said one 30-year veteran of the non-profit industry who declined to be identified, citing close ties to the local community where Lolly lives. “How do they account for those gift cards? That’s just very odd.”
The state’s vocation training program managers don’t seem to be bothered by the loose accounting, though. Last year, Lolly was awarded his third consecutive state contract. This time, IICDF will collect around $1 million to administer the training program to as many as 586 special needs students.
A Facebook post announcing the availability of classes in June and July has been reposted several times this month. No actual class dates or times were provided. A post on June 3rd announced a “new facility” for the program, but with COVID-19 cases still climbing, IICDF says it will offer the program online.