Camp Coastal Crooks Mike Sweeney & Sandy Molenhouse: Welcome to Slabbed

One thing us Slabbers learned in the aftermath of Katrina is the astonishing number of various and sundry grifters, scammers, fraudsters and old fashioned crooks that blow into town after a major storm, or, in the case of Dollar Bill Jefferson ramp up the family crime ring to include skimming post Hurricane charity.

But we’ve also been blessed with a much larger group of people in the multitude of volunteers that came here from every corner of the country and others like my fellow Mississippian Nowdy, who was asked to come here and who answered the call staying several months in Katrina ground zero away from her family.

This topic has been forced on us today because the scammers that set up and ran Camp Coastal are in the news and it makes my stomach turn. Not only did they fail people in need here at Ground Zero they fleeced the people who opened their hearts and wallets to help the less fortunate who lost to Katrina’s wind and waves. We can only hope a lengthy trip to the Graybar Hotel is in their future. WLOX has the story:

WLOX News began getting complaints about Camp Coastal in Hancock County early this year. As Action Reporter A.J. Giardina investigated the claims, he found the Secretary of State, which regulates Mississippi charities, was also checking into claims that Camp Coastal’s directors were using some of the millions donated to rebuild homes for large salaries and expensive trips. In an exclusive interview, the Secretary of State told A.J. that Camp Coastal is out of business and the search is on for the missing money.

For nearly three years, Camp Coastal Outpost on Highway 603 in the Kiln raised money and coordinated volunteer labor to rebuild homes in Hancock County and South Lousisiana.

Though Camp Coastal billed itself as a charity, Secretary of State Delbert Hoseman says it was never registered with his office.

“It received a significant amount of money. In the five million dollar range we believe, from various sources from the United States and from around the world to help citizens in Mississippi get back on their feet and rebuild their homes,” Hoseman said.

Hoseman says his office has spent months investigating complaints that Camp Coastal Director Mike Sweeney and his assistant Sandy Molenhouse were misusing funds.

“As we looked into the books and records over the last two years, we find that approximately $270,914 dollars was used as personal salaries to two individuals in Camp Coastal. Their personal transactions involved in this account, approxmiately $131,016. And we had travel and marine of approxmmiately $83,000,” Hoseman said. “These included trips to Belize and the Bahamas, on cruise lines everything from bar bills to individual nail shops. The total is approxmiately a half-a-million dollars spent of money that was donated.” (See below for detailed spending)

WLOX News reported on several of the building projects started by Camp Coastal, but Hoseman says his office hasn’t been able to get an accurate count of how many houses Camp Coastal actually built.

“Some of that was obviously used for that purpose, but a good bit was not,” Hoseman said.

The Camp Coastal Outpost on Highway 603 in the Kiln is empty now. Hoseman’s office issued an order on August 29th, the three year anniversary of Katrina, shutting down Camp Coastal’s operations and fundraising.

As for the people who ran Camp Coastal, Mike Sweeney and Sandy Molenhouse, the Secretary of State wants to hear their explanation of how close to a million and a half dollars was spent.

“In addition, because of the inability for us to accurately get records on these individuals we find about one-point-four million dollars that we’re finding unaccountable. That we’re unable to determine exactly where they are,” Hoseman said.

Hoseman says Mike Sweeny and Sandy Molenhouse have a right to a hearing which his office has asked them to schedule. He says if they don’t set up a hearing, his office will go forward in an attempt to collect the funds.

The secretary of state isn’t the only state agency investigating Camp Coastal. Hoseman told WLOX he has turned over his findings to the Attorney General.

Detailed Spending:

Here is a partial list of Camp Coastal spending questioned by Secretary of State Delbert Hoseman. All information is contained in a Cease and Desist Order issued August 29, 2008.

From March 2006 to March 2008

$83,130.78

“Multiple trips for cruise travel out of Miami, Florida, on Norwegian Cruise Lines; Carnival Cruise Lines; excursions to the Florida Keys, Belize, scuba diving in Cozumel, multiple boating excursions from the Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana coasts; and winter ski resort trips to Park City Utah.”

“Out-of-state travel to Georgia, Michigan, Texas, Illinois and other states. It is alleged that all of the travel funds described…. were for the personal use and benefit of Mike Sweeney and Sandy Molenhouse or authorized by Mike Sweeney and Sandy Molenhouse for others and not for any volunteers or charitable purpose.”

$47,935.23

“Multiple restaurant meals, lawn care for Mike Sweeney, AFLAC insurance, COBRA insurance coverage for Sandy Molenhouse, nail care, out-of-state telephone bills and rental of a storage facility in Michigan for Sandy Molenhouse.”

$7,525.40 monthly salary each for Mike Sweeney & Sandy Molenhouse.

“No fewer than 18 vehicles… donated to Camp Coastal Outpost by various benefactors or purchased by donated funds were titled personally to Mike Sweeney, Sandy Moelenhouse or to relatives of Mike Sweeney.”

28 thoughts on “Camp Coastal Crooks Mike Sweeney & Sandy Molenhouse: Welcome to Slabbed”

  1. There is also talk locally that Mike Sweeney used part of the money given by Aramco for the CCO (Camp Coastal Outpost) housing project to re-build local contractors homes. In turn they would provide reduced cost labor for the “for profit” Heron Homes, a home building company which Mike and Sandy also set up.

    This is just talk at the moment, nothing confirmed, but there were questions on spending in the early days of the camp. Maybe once the state determines how many home were actually built they can see who the receipents were.

  2. First off thank you for coming and helping the people here.

    Here is the Heron Homes website, I’ve checked the Secretary of State and Heron is not registered with them as a corporation or LLC nor did the records search list anything associated with Sweeny/Molenhouse.

    Given your post and what I found I hope that in addition to Jim Hood the Mississipi State Tax Commission and Internal Revenue Service are on this too.

    sop

  3. This bit from the Camp Coastal website is so ironic:

    “The Coastal Domicile Replacement project has exhausted its funds and will end with completion of the houses currently under construction. (Less than 10 left to finish!)

    The less obvious factors

  4. One thing that’s sad is the huge number of volunteers who came and worked in good faith — and paid to stay there. They did a lot of building at the camp itself. Now you’ve got me wondering if some of them were duped into working on Heron Homes projects.

  5. How could they offer those prices otherwise KB? And that would bring up a whole other list of victims like the licensed contractors trying to make a living in Hancock County. You’ll notice neither Heron, Sweeney or Molenhouse bothered to get a contractors license.

    One naturally wonders of course, why the county building department allowed them to construct anything.

    sop

  6. From what little I have heard, Heron Homes has finished one or two homes tops. I also heard they were using another person who has a license to pull permits for the homes. I heard that they may have pulled permits using the contractors license without him knowing.

    As far as volunteer labor being used on Heron Homes, I have not heard that. I was however in the area a couple of months ago and I know for a fact that Mike had some volunteers painting his shed behind the house he where he and Sandy are staying. It is the first house behind (south of) the Snoball stand off of Texas Flat road in The Kill. So it wouldn’t suprize me if they had volunteers working on for profit homes as well.

  7. I’m the minister of a congregation that sent three groups (40 people in all) to Camp Coastal to work. Someone sent me a link to the abovementioned article from WLOX on Friday. I’m sick about it, especially as we prepare for a service next week where the folks who went on the most recent trip (late June, 2008) share their experience. It would be helpful to have a way to know how much of what is mentioned above is conjecture and how much is fact. I want to be honest with the congregation, and also to affirm that there was good and important work done there — the most important work, of course, being the widening of their own hearts and minds.

  8. Pastor P,

    Do not let what may have gone on with leadership at CCO diminish the work done by members of your group. Worst-case scenario, they unknowingly worked on a house built for Heron Homes. Someone will end up owning that home and we all know that housing is in short supply on the MS gulf coast. If your group had their own projects, CCO has no more to do with the project than a hotel has to do with a business deal of a guest who stayed in the hotel.

    Bottom line is folks on the coast needed help and some will for a time to come. There are groups that operate with oversight and have case managers that can effectively task your group. If future groups would like to go, call some of the local churches and see if they have, or could recommend a group in the area.

    God Bless,
    PV

  9. Pastor P I’d like to echo the sentiments of past volunteer. Y’all have nothing to hang your head about and we’d love to have you guys back anytime.

    As for the basis of the news reporting it comes straight from the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office which in Mississippi is the regulatory agency responsible for not for profits. I’d be willing to bet money they didn’t file form 1023 with the IRS either (non profit application).

    sop

  10. Pastor P — as much as I hate making a “me too” post, I agree with what the others have said. Your folks came down to help at a time when help was sorely needed, and highly appreciated. That remains true no matter what else comes out.

    About a year ago, I talked some CCO volunteers who expressed frustration at being assigned to work on the camp itself, rather than homes. The overall picture they gave me was of a poorly-organized effort.

    I believe that Mike Sweeney & Sandy Molenhouse owe the volunteers as much of an accounting as they do the state, the IRS, the financial contributors. I’m looking forward to seeing all the truth come out.

  11. hey i am a pastor who has taken a couple groups to camp coastal. it is dissappointing if the allegations are true. but it is easy once something like that is accused to see everything through that lens. I want to speak to the accusation of the painting of the shed in mike sweeny’s yard. Those are bad facts. It was my group that painted the shed and it belonged to mike’s neighbor who just finished his home after two years of work to get back in. His laundry facilities were in the shed and roof leaked terribly. So our group repaired the roof, did some other repairs as it was in shabby condition, and finally painted it. So i know that part is a misunderstanding and i only hope that much of the other parts are as well. I know a lot of these types of things can be done out of ingorance rather than criminal greed. I Corinthians 13 tells us that Love Always Hopes. And until I see some sort of response by the leadership of CCO i am going to, accept that the truth may in the end be darker, but until i see both sides i will hope that mike and sandy at least fully intended well.

  12. Welcome to SLABBED, Bob, and thank you for thoughts we need to keep in mind on this and many other issues.

    Sop has been following this situation and perhaps he has an update – our reliance on his expertise in finance has consumed his blogging time since the “bailout”.

  13. Bob,

    Thanks for your input and please pass our thanks on to all the volunteers you brought with you. It’s a big sacrifice to use one’s vacation tiome or whatever to come down to mosquitoland and help people out.

    What was your impression of the camp and the organizer while you were here?

    I think we all are looking forward to having all the facts on this. Anyway…

    I can report that somebody is clearing out the buildings and equipment from Camp Coastal. I’m assuming it’s Sweeney and/or Molenhouse. The general attitude around the Kiln is pretty much the lynch mob that Sop mentioned.

  14. howdy
    i am attempting to finish the houses that camp costal left there are several–would like to hear from past volunteers who would like to help

    Best Regards and God Bless

    Doc moore

  15. I can’t even believe people would believe this crap. I worked at CCO over the summer and it is, well, was, an amazing organization that helped hundreds of people. I’m glad everyone automatically assumes the worst, simply from what you read on the internet. It breaks my heart that people would go to such lengths to discredit some amazing people. We’ll see who’s remembered in 20 years, Mike and Sandy, who helped hundreds of people get back into their homes after a terrible ordeal with Hurricane Katrina, or you people, who want to sit here and criticize them for the work that they did. I hope you are perfectly happy with yourself. You do not have the right to judge anyone.

  16. Just to give some of you a bit of encouragement, I brought two groups of 30-40 people to CCO in the Spring and Summer of 2006. Yes, things seemed pretty disorganized. I only met Mike a couple of times, and Sandy always seemed to be going eight different directions at once. You should keep in mind, however, that at any given time there were about 200-300 people in camp living in (practically) third-world conditions, sharing 4 showers, little electricity, with barely a handful of people (who obviously had little experience cooking for large quantities of people) providing all the meals. Each day started with 200-300 people asking, “what can we do?” and “where do we go?” My groups spent time building bunkhouses and installing bathrooms, ripping out damaged drywall and hanging new drywall in houses between Kiln and Waveland (that used to be under 15-20 feet of water- I’ve got pictures that show the waterlines at the light switches in second floor rooms- 3 MILES INLAND!), cleaning debris from the yards of the elderly, cleaning trash from roadsides, wiring the walk-in freezer (brought contractors from Michigan), and helping out at a food pantry at a township hall north of Kiln where proud little old ladies who shared FEMA trailers would wait in a dirt parking lot for an hour to get a bar of soap, some canned fruits and vegetables, and maybe a can of Spam. In the evenings, we would drive into Waveland and search home sites for things that the homeowners might consider keepsakes. We left them on their porches and foundations, hoping that (maybe) we found something that would save a warm memory for them. REGARDLESS of how any money was spent, we paid $15.00 a day per person for three meals and a place to sleep. That was the deal and that’s what we got. We left feeling that we had made a difference- even if just a little bit. And the gracious people of Mississippi touched our lives with their determination, thankfulness and humility. If Mike and Sandy get a ski trip out of making that happen, that’s fine with me, as long as they pay their taxes like they should. And that, apparently, is the issue. Let’s be honest, anyone running a campground during this time could have made thousands (or millions) in site rental alone and it would have been just fine as long as they paid their taxes. I don’t know what (or if) other donations might have been given to CCO with intentions that it was going to a non-profit organization, but we got exactly what we paid for.

    1. Jim I’m sure you and your group heard this many times in your time here but thank you for your service. Volunteers made the difference here IMHO.

      The issues with Molenhouse and Sweeney are multitude. They billed their operation as non profit and solicited donations under that label but never filed for exemption with IRS or the MS Sec of State. That may not seem like much to you but it is huge especially considering certain doners had to amend their tax returns as a result.

      The trips and amounts spent on other personal nonrelated expenses amounted to over $300,000. Again the donations were solicited for Hurricane relief not leisure travel.

      According to other insiders at Camp Coastal (Admin) not volunteers that $15 dollars you paid ended up straight in Molenhouse’s and Sweeney’s pockets. Since I have not seen the accounting records I can’t verify that allegation but given the other documented problems such would not surprise me either.

      Sweeney and Molenhouse are currently in bankruptcy trying to escape the creditors they left here. You see since CC never formed a trust or filed as a non profit corporation they are on the hook personally for the trade vendors they stuck before they shut down.

      As a CPA/auditor by trade I actually marvel at the beauty of their scam. Worth noting is that Molenhouse and Sweeney did manage to form a for profit contractor called Heron Homes which advertised ridiculously low prices for their homes. Free labor no doubt made that possible.

      All that said none of that in any way diminshes the good accomplished by the volunteers that came to Camp Coastal. My Katrina experience with those that came here after the storm is that I witnessed the best and worst humanity had to offer with little in the middle. Grifters, scammers and the like are naturally attracted to such situations unfortunately.

      After Sweeney and Molenhouse emerge from bankruptcy they have a date with our Secretary of State who will most likely make them pay back every penny they converted to their personal use and possibly the US Attorney. Stay tuned.

      I intend to author another post on this, especially since Meaghan Chapman is no longer at the Seacoast Echo stealing my work. Meaghan was evidently doing a cheech and chong impersonation in Waveland that landed her in some legal trouble.

      sop

  17. Dear Sop and any other concerned individuals,
    I would like to express my deepest concern and regret for some of the dicisions made by the leadership of Camp Coastal. I can, for what its worth, personally assure you that whether or not some spending got out of hand that the intention of the organization was honest and good. I can also assure any former volunteers that stayed at Camp Coastal that the fee you paid to stay there went directly to the bills associated with the expense of running one of the largest volunteer housing facilites on the coast. Something that a lot of people seem to be over-looking during this investigation. I can also attest to the amount of money spent on the electic bill (which was at least $4000 a month) and the cost of feeding hundreds of volunteers three meals a day (I’ve personally had spend $3500 a week shopping for the volunteers when the camp was full).
    Another key component that seems to be ingnored by some of the posters on this site is the well fair of the long term staff that lived on site at Camp Coastal. There were several of us that gave up our lives full time to live in bunkhouses and FEMA trailers to help things run smoothly at camp. The staff came from all over the country and from all walks of life to manage our small part of the recovery effort and I can assure you that none of us did it to get rich. Mike and Sandy did what they could to make us as comfortable as they could because they knew we were a valuable piece of the puzzle, not because they were trying to hide funds and “fatten their pockets”. Also, I maintained the website for the camp as well as all of the reservations made by volunteers, I also took payments from those volunteers and I can vouch that Camp Coastal never claimed to be a non-profit rather it was billed as a not-for-profit and this, at least for the staff, I still believe to be true.
    I personally welcomed thousands of volunteers to Camp Coastal over my 18-month stay there. I would like to thank each and every one of them for their time and dedication to the people of Mississippi. I would also like to assure them that the work they were doing was vital and for a very good cause. You did help hundreds of families devastated by Katrina. I’ve read the rumors going around that volunteers were working on houses for Heron Homes. This is a lie. Heron Homes, while the brainchild of Mike and Sandy, was not part of Camp Coastal in anyway. Yes, some of the construction crew that was hired to assist volunteers on Camp Coastal projects were offered positions with Heron Homes, I can promise that the projects were seperate and for an entirely different demographic. Yes, the floor plans were the same for both Camp Coastal and Heron Homes, that does not make them the same.
    I welcome responses from anyone who may wish to do so as well as any questions you may have. Again, I am truely sorry that something that started out so positive has turned into such a mess but that shouldn’t over-shadow the really good work that was done on the Camp Coastal platform and all those that are devoted to the recovery effort.

    1. Nicole I appreciate you stopping in and sharing your experiences with us. Despite not blogging on this for over a year this topic has generated continual interest.

      In a sense we’re having an inside conversation as some of the allegations which I alluded in the comments were contained in print editions of the Echo but never made it on to the internet. Nicole with your comments I think we have enough for a balanced post that reviews it all.

      sop

  18. I am reading these posts and tears come to my eyes….. i too gaave my life to be a part of this and though there are many costs that came with the camp there were some funds misused. it is sad to know your life and the things you work towards can be taken away by someone who doesn’t care about others…just themselves. No matter what anyone says the volunteers were loved and remembered by the staff and the homeowners for what they did. Sacrifce is a key word to keep in mind and we all know what people did to come help those of the Gulf Coast. Guarenteed, volunteers did NOT do work for Heron Homes…just homeowners who were in need of a home…..however, going to say i do believe mike and sandy dooped us all into believing something that wasn’t true…..if so they would have had a non-profit status, they would have hired people who knew what they were doing, they would have managed 2. whatever million dollars more accurately, they would have done a lot more…..instead they are being investigated by the federal courts for fraud….it’s hard to remember that we did help a lot of needy people when you know it was under people like mike and sandy….they robbed me and many others of the innocence of what we wanted to do…help people. and for that they are horrible people.

    1. Diane, the unfortunate casualties in this are the volunteers who came here that now feel betrayed the subsequent revelations of the diversion of funds by Sweeney and Molenhouse. Though my family and I were very fortunate to be blessed with the means to recover, the coast was blessed by people like you who came here to help the less fortunate in a very dark time. Speaking for everyone on this Gulf Coast I’ll add we honor the outpouring of support we received from across this great land from people like you that came with love in their hearts and hands ready to help. Nothing that Sweeney and Molenhouse did diminishes that one bit in my opinion.

      I stopped blogging on this subject because an unethical (former) journalist at a small town newspaper ripped off our work without any attribution. I’ll see what I can dig up and perhaps update this post.

      sop

  19. I was one of the people who helped start and build the camp. I was a director. There were several of us. Maryann from Coastal Hardware owned the land. She was the person responsible for allowing us to start the camp. If any thanks or gratitude is necessary, she deserves a handful. I was at the camp for two weeks alone getting things done in December of 2005 before it even opened. The bunk houses were donated by a church in Michigan. They were prefab. We just had to bolt them together. I believe it was a total of thirty bunk houses donated.

    The first house we built was in Pearlington. It was for an older couple. They asked for my permission to hand the keys over to their daughter. She was a young single mom with a newborn who was only a few months old. I said to them, of course you can. It is your home. Since they decided to do that, the plan was to build the next one for them. That first house went up in nine days. A group of craftsman from Michigan were responsible for the first house. It was prebuilt in the Coastal Hardware yard. It was then trucked to Perlington where it was assembled. They were an unbelievable crew who worked night and day to get it done. I don’t know their names, but I do remember their faces. There were a lot of homes in the community damaged. I responsible for assessing the damage to see where the work crews would go. It was decided that anything that we could immediately do to get folks back into their homes was a top priority. If there was any kind of roof damage, that was addressed and sent to the front of the line.

    I do not care to get into details here, but I can tell you, the misappropriation of funds was clearly evident early on. You could not imagine my anger when this thievery became blatantly obvious. I eventually decided to leave the camp for fear that I would go after both of them and end up in jail. Only Marianne the owner of Coastal Hardware was able to calm me down. She reminded me of the good that I was doing to help the community. If I got myself into trouble, I wouldn’t able to help the people in need. I will always love the people in Mississippi. They never once complained about anything. It was because of them that I worked myself into exhaustion every day. I would do anything and everything not to let them down. It was one of the most gratifying things I have ever done in my life.

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