The Lahaina Fire Fund was never a registered nonprofit yet collected hundreds of thousands of dollars through online donation sites.

A fundraiser that promised to direct aid to Lahaina fire survivors and raised more than $900,000 online instead gave $750,000 to five Maui churches and the nonprofit Malama Lahaina, its organizers say.

The Lahaina Fire Fund was set up three days after the fire by Maui realtor Eric West, his son Colton West and John Morgan, a friend of West’s who identifies himself as a life coach.

Eric West gained prominence on social media during the fundraising campaign as he touted the theory that the Maui wildfire was started by a “directed energy weapon” and then covered up by the government.

The fund rapidly collected at least $937,000. More than $160,000 still hasn’t been distributed.

West said that he couldn’t provide a breakdown of the disbursements, but it would be available eventually.

A screenshot from a YouTube video by Maui realtor Eric West where he promotes alternative theories about the origins of the Lahaina fire. (Screenshot/YouTube)

The fund originally had a goal of $1.6 million to purchase emergency supplies and transport them to West Maui, but that was never achieved. The total raised is based on amounts posted on verified fundraising pages on GoFundMe and GiveSendGo that both name Colton West as the organizer.

Throughout the fundraising period, Eric West promoted disinformation about a laser setting fire to Lahaina and other conspiracy theories.

West represented himself on camera as a citizen-journalist, who claimed he and his family were harassed when he “started questioning the fire.”

He posted and later deleted two YouTube videos entitled “Maui D.E.W: Evidence of Direct Energy Weapon? Judge For Yourself,” in which he challenges the narrative that a grass fire, possibly ignited by electricity, scorched West Maui. 

On Aug. 29 West also appeared on Alex Jones’ InfoWars to further promote the laser theory and a cover up in Lahaina.

West told Civil Beat he wasn’t paid for his appearance, and how much money was raised from the online activities is unknown. He said the Lahaina Fire Fund didn’t pay for his video and audio equipment.

Eric West blames GoFundMe for a three-week delay in releasing the funds, which he said foiled the initial plan of giving cash and supplies directly to survivors. GoFundMe’s site says funds are usually available within three to five business days.

At one point West and Morgan reached out to a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit in California, Warrior Angel Rescue, to help distribute donations, they say.

President and founder Valerie Bolanos said she had a single advisory phone call with Colton West and Morgan where she offered a solution: without taking a fee, they could channel funds to Maui survivors through her nonprofit, but the arrangement was never formalized.

A screenshot of the Aug. 19 update to the Lahaina Fire Fund’s GoFundMe page, claiming that Warrior Angel Rescue charity will create a sub-account to disburse funds, which was not the case. (Screenshot/Lahaina Fire Fund/GoFundMe)

But then a potential donor emailed her a screenshot of the Lahaina Fire Fund GoFundMe from Aug. 19, “saying ‘I’m doing due diligence, basically, I want to know how much has been distributed’,” Bolanos said.

“I was surprised and frustrated to find out that Eric and Colton West had represented us as a partner, when they didn’t even bother to communicate back to me whether they wanted to or not,” Bolanos said. “We never received funds on their behalf. And we’re not associated with their efforts or their activities in any way.”

She successfully demanded they remove all references to her charity from the GoFundMe page.

Morgan said that Colton West controlled the crowdfunding sites’ descriptions. He told Civil Beat he backed away from the fundraising effort as West prioritized his activities on his YouTube channel.

Colton West did not respond to requests for comment.

Donations Captured On YouTube

Mark Hyde, a Maui resident and lawyer with years of experience organizing nonprofits, looked into the fund after a friend shared it with him.

“It was obvious to me right from the get go that there was no nonprofit — it was just them telling people about it, and to me this was material misrepresentation,” he said.

Hyde said there are real world consequences to West’s misinformation campaign.

“You have to remember that what Eric is saying is, ‘you cannot trust FEMA, you cannot trust the government. So you give the money to me.'” 

Hyde laid out his concerns over the fundraisers in a letter to Gov. Josh Green, House Speaker Scott Saiki and Attorney General Anne Lopez on Sept 19.

The AG’s Tax and Charities Division would not comment on that specific situation other than to confirm Maui LFG isn’t a registered 501 (c)3 nonprofit in the state. The Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs confirmed that Maui LFG incorporated as a nonprofit business but that questions about nonprofit status should be directed to the AG’s office.

A screenshot of the initial description of the Lahaina Fire Fund on GoFundMe describing purchase of supplies. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Eric West says the trio underestimated how long it would take to formally establish a 501(c)3 nonprofit, although they got as far as registering a nonprofit business with the state called Maui LFG several weeks after they started raising money.

West said he decided to rapidly disburse the money to churches and the nonprofit when he realized the fund – and his son Colton – could face a massive income tax bill. Donations to fundraisers can be considered income by the IRS, and the Lahaina Fire Fund was never registered as a nonprofit charity.

Colton West wrote in an update on the GoFundMe page that from Sept. 3 to Sept. 8 they disbursed the $750,000 to five Maui churches and the nonprofit Malama Lahaina. Malama Lahaina bills itself as a Native Hawaiian advocacy group that aims to reclaim land for Hawaiians through the Kingdom of Akua Foundation.

It was always possible to donate the funds to churches, Eric West said, and the original letter of attestation with GoFundMe listed three different churches as recipients.

West said his family received death threats online because of the delay in dispersing the donations so he turned to his pastor Herman Haupu, at Faith Family Maui, for advice on where to direct the money.

Hapau said he told West about churches engaged in relief efforts, but the final destinations for funds were made by West.

Recordings of the five donations to churches were posted on Eric West’s real estate business YouTube channel as evidence of their disbursement.

Lahaina United Methodist Church’s pastor, John Crewe, told Civil Beat that on Sept. 6 he went out to meet someone who wanted to make a donation to his church. “I hadn’t heard of Eric West before. It wasn’t until I got there that I learned how much he was going to give, which was surprising.”

In a livestream, Colton West presented Crewe with a $200,000 check. Crewe said he signed a letter of attestation that the money will go to fire victims — including many members of his congregation who lost their homes.

Eric West said he would give Civil Beat a copy of the letter of attestation he asked the churches to sign but then failed to do so.

Haupu confirmed his church received a $100,000 donation which will be used as direct financial assistance to survivors. 

Calvary Chapel Westside pastor Steve Santos confirmed his church received a $100,000 donation for its general fire fund.

Eric West streams a $100,000 check donation to Faith Family Maui with his son, Colton, directly behind him and next to Pastors Herman and Carol Haupu. The rest of the West family is in the background. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Grace Bible Maui and Citizen Church are shown on YouTube videos but could not be reached for confirmation and Malama Lahaina did not respond to a request for confirmation.

Both of the crowdfunding pages are now inactive, but on Sept. 8 Colton West wrote on the GoFundMe site that in addition to the $750,000, $24,200 was earmarked for direct payments without naming recipients, and that $13,775 was spent on Starlink internet access systems and the supplies originally listed.

Eric West said the remainder of the GoFundMe account has yet to be distributed and that GiveSendGo hadn’t disbursed the funds yet.

Since the GiveSendGo page is inactive, the site clarified by email that the final total raised was $130,909. It confirmed it hadn’t disbursed funds to Colton West yet, and that he indicated his plans included donating “to benefit a Maui nonprofit aiding the fire victims”.

Eric West said he plans to return $50,000 in mailed checks his group also received, and that they will likely use several thousand dollars to cover any taxes incurred.

Update: This story has been updated with additional information from the online fundraiser GiveSendGo.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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