Churches who were recipients of money from Eric West have provided limited details of how they have spent it, but they are not required to do so.

A controversial fundraiser for Maui wildfire survivors is being audited by Tax and Charities Division of the Hawaii Attorney General’s office after questions were raised about its operations and where the money has ended up.

Active until September, the Lahaina Fire Fund quickly raised over $955,000 after the disaster, purportedly for direct aid for survivors. The fund initially claimed it would be managing the funds by establishing a nonprofit charity, but that never happened.

Instead its organizers started dropping the money on West Maui churches, and as much as $175,000 of the fund remains unspent.

Eric West shown presenting a check to Sarah Beckman, Campus Pastor from Citizen Church in West Maui. The money was raised through a GoFundMe campaign. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Maui realtor Eric West and his son Colton donated $750,000 from their GoFundMe campaign to multiple Maui churches and Malama Lahaina, a nonprofit native Hawaiian advocacy group, to avoid a potentially large tax liability. Another $38,000 was spent on direct financial assistance and supplies, according to their GoFundMe page.

But Eric West has since taken receipt of another $130,909 from GiveSendGo, a conservative-leaning fundraising site similar to GoFundMe. The GiveSendGo fund and $50,000 that was allegedly returned by Malama Lahaina, leaves over $175,000.

West confirmed the Lahaina Fire Fund was being audited and said they provided the AG’s office with receipts and records, including the names and contact information for every individual that was provided assistance. He said he welcomed the audit, as he wants transparency across the board for the money pouring into Maui.

“It’d be nice if there was some kind of centralized audit system,” West said. “I assumed the Attorney General was probably reaching out to all these organizations. So that made me feel really good. They’re taking a strong interest in that.”

Screenshot taken from text message chain with Eric West. (Screenshot)

In an emailed statement the AG’s office declined to comment on the status of the audit.

The breakdown provided by West in a text message showed the GoFundMe campaign’s spending, and included nearly $26,000 in GoFundMe processing fees and over $7,000 in administrative costs.

In an interview Friday, West declined to provide further documentation until after the audit was resolved.

He said he plans to disburse the remaining funds to up to 15 Maui families whose addresses he will vet to ensure they were affected by the fire.

What Churches Say About The Funds

After processing fees from GoFundMe and GiveSendGo, the balance of the Lahaina Fire Fund was approximately $925,841. West says that another $50,000 was spent on direct financial assistance, supplies and administrative and legal costs.

The Wests donated the following to five churches:

  • $200,000 to Citizen Church Maui
  • $200,000 to Lahaina United Methodist Church
  • $100,000 to Faith Family Maui
  • $100,000 to Calvary Chapel
  • $100,000 to Grace Bible Maui
A screenshot from Leonard Nakoa’s Instagram showing the torn up check to Malama Lahaina from the Lahaina Fire Fund. (Screenshot/Instagram)

West has told Civil Beat that the nonprofit Malama Lahaina destroyed the $50,000 check he gave them, although the organization’s executive director Donald Kaulia said by text they never received a check.

Leonard Nakoa, an associate of Malama Lahaina, appears to tear up the check in an Instagram video. Nakoa did not respond to multiple phone calls and texts for comment.

Meanwhile, each church leader confirmed receipt of funds and generally described how the money was used.

Pastor John Crewe of Lahaina United Methodist Church, consulted with his accountant and confirmed that they had directed funds to 62 families and that they were still reviewing 12 new applications.

Faith Family Maui’s Pastor Herman Haupu said they had disbursed funds for up to 35 families. Grace Bible Maui disbursed $500 checks to 200 families, according to Pastor Jonavan Asato. Both pastors said they verified applicants’ identities and addresses.

Citizen Church Maui funneled its $200,000 directly into its parent church’s Maui relief fund, according to Pastor Craig Beckman. Funds were used for food boxes and other essentials, but have now transitioned to longer-term needs.

Beckman deferred to the head office in Albuquerque for further comment, but they did not respond to a request to explain how the money was used.

Calvary Chapel Westside said it spent the bulk as gift cards for displaced victims at the Hyatt Hotel, as well as financial assistance and other services.

Most of the religious leaders refused to provide documentation out of privacy concerns. But Pastor Steve Santos of Calvary Chapel Westside said it was still too early for a full accounting, even if churches are not required to provide it.

“My thing is that I got nothing to hide. It’s just too much work. I got too many other things that I’m doing. But at the same time, I want people to hear the real story of what’s going on,” Santos said.

Eric West’s fundraising campaign coincided with a series of videos posted to YouTube where he promoted conspiracy theories about the cause of the Lahaina fire. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Many kinds of fundraisers appear after a disaster, according to Rick Cohen, Chief Communications Officer and COO at the National Council of Nonprofits, but not all are equipped to manage the funds they receive.

“At the end of the day, it’s tough to hold any GoFundMe fundraiser that’s outside of the auspices of an actual 501(c)3 nonprofit accountable because they don’t have the same rules to operate by that a 501(c)3 does,” Cohen said.

The council generally recommends that people looking to help donate to established organizations, although that doesn’t preclude local groups who can be more knowledgeable about community needs.

Cohen said that churches and nonprofits usually report only what they need to and a reluctance to do so is not a sign of wrongdoing. Churches are exempt from filing tax returns.

However, the benefit of donating to a 501(c)3 nonprofit is that it must file a 990-tax form each year that provides information about incoming donations and how those funds were allocated.

“It’s not going to be a specific dollar-for-dollar accounting of every single penny that came in and went out,” Cohen said. “But you’ll see quite a bit.”

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

Support Civil Beat during the season of giving.

As a small nonprofit newsroom, our mission is powered by readers like you. But did you know that less than 1% of readers donate to Civil Beat?

Give today and support local journalism that helps to inform, empower and connect.

About the Author