Housing Complex

Lawsuit Friday: MLK Memorial Foundation Sued for Stiffing Fundraiser

No commission for you!

You know those people with clipboards who stake out sidewalks and hit you up for donations to Greenpeace or Save the Children? Most of them are getting a cut of what they raise, but maybe that doesn't bother you; it's just a side job, after all, and you don't begrudge them a couple bucks.

Sometimes, big-time fundraising works the same way: Consultants get a percentage of the hundreds of thousands of dollars they raise from big-time donors as an "origination fee." That, at least, was the arrangement with the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Foundation, which needed to raise $120 million to build the monument. Except this time, a fundraiser claims, the Foundation didn't follow through: On January 11, New York-based Graves Advisory Group sued them for stiffing their commission on $1.25 million in contributions.

This is how it happened. According to the complaint, in 2010, the Foundation brought on Michael Graves to do some last minute fundraising, and agreed to pay him 7.5 percent of whatever he could get. Graves said he secured at least $1 million from Vista Equity Partners, but the Foundation denied him the fee because Vista didn't want part of its donation going to Graves. Then, Graves says he raised $225,000 from another private equity firm, and the Foundation refused to pay him again.

Graves says the Foundation never planned on paying him for his services, and is asking for more than $1.5 million in damages. Oh, and the complaint alleges that Foundation president Harry Johnson refused to pay because Black Enterprise magazine—founded and published by Graves' father—declined to put him on the cover.

Who else was Graves hitting up for money? In attached emails, Graves says he was working on people including Lloyd Blankfein, Bill Cosby, Oprah, Sean Combs, Jay-Z, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods. As time shortened before the memorial's dedication and corporate donors became harder to come by, Graves said these were "high net worth individuals and Foundations...who can quickly pull the trigger without heavy bureaucratic read [sic] tape."

If Graves wins, it wouldn't be the first embarrassment for the Foundation, which has been beset by various controversies and was just ordered to re-do an inscription that had taken liberties with King's words.

I've asked the Foundation for a response, and not yet heard back.