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In the news: With county MASH Unit under scrutiny, Dr. Ashcraft comments on transparency for nonprofits

May 23, 2024 — In Maricopa County, a nonprofit organization founded by the county's former sheriff is under scrutiny for poor record-keeping and missing annual filings. Robert Ashcraft, executive director of the ASU Lodestar Center, spoke with the Arizona Republic about the legal requirements and best practices for nonprofits to maintain compliance, transparency and community trust.

Millions raised for sheriff's animal shelter that was never built. Where did the money go?

Paul Penzone won the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office in 2016 on the message that he was going to undo the legacy of Joe Arpaio.

But the agency's Animal Safe Haven — the MASH Unit, for short — was one aspect of Arpaio's legacy that Penzone decided was worth keeping. Expanding upon, even.

The MASH Unit was one of the PR-savvy Arpaio’s most inspired creations. A home inside a jail for animals seized during Sheriff’s Office investigations, Apraio used the unit as a backdrop for media stories that featured “America’s toughest sheriff” having a soft spot for animals.

Arpaio surrounded himself with dogs and cats while cameras rolled, directing attention away from his agency's unconstitutional policing practices. The Sheriff’s Office highlighted incarcerated people working with MASH Unit animals, programming pitched as rehabilitative for people and abused animals alike.

In 2018, Penzone set up a nonprofit organization with the intention of building a new home for seized animals. Corporate partners were brought on and more than $1.5 million was raised for the project.

But in the years since, the organization languished, getting so little attention that state records and federal tax filings listed Penzone as a director for years after he resigned from the board.

No new home for animals was built, the main corporate partner pulled out and no one seems to be able to account for what happened to more than $300,000 that had been raised.


Robert Ashcraft, executive director of the Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation at Arizona State University, said the tax-exempt status enjoyed by nonprofits is a privilege and that nonprofit entities should aspire to be transparent, communicative and open.

He said it's especially important for nonprofits to have accurate descriptions of current board members included in their annual federal IRS filing, called Form 990.

"That way the public can see who is stewarding and shepherding the mission of the organization," he said. "Because at the end of the day, the board is the legal fiduciary agent."

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