Questions surround Bernie Mac charity

Bernard McCullough grew up above an Englewood church and then worked as a fry cook while honing his comedy act at night. Decades later, after hitting it big in nightclubs, television and movies, Bernie Mac wanted to give back.

He founded a small charity in 2005 aimed at helping fellow sufferers of sarcoidosis, a disease that disproportionately affects blacks in the U.S. The organization continued after his death three years later, collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations and holding fundraisers — including a blues show as recently as February.

But public records and interviews show that the charity is falling short of key benchmarks for such organizations, as well as the generous intentions of its founder. For instance, records for the six years ending in 2012 show that 13 percent of the Bernie Mac Foundation's spending has gone to charitable programs, far below the 65 percent minimum that experts recommend.

A national sarcoidosis group also told the Tribune that it never received an agreed-upon grant from the Bernie Mac Foundation. Ginger Spitzer, executive director of the Foundation for Sarcoidosis Research, said the Bernie Mac Foundation pledged $100,000 to the group in 2010 but paid out only $50,000.

She said her group then cut ties with the charity, though the Bernie Mac Foundation until recently continued to claim on its website that the two groups are "partners."

Mac's daughter, Je'Niece McCullough, resigned from the Bernie Mac Foundation board of directors almost three years ago because, she said, she felt the organization lacked focus or direction.

"It was like the blind leading the blind," she said. "When my dad was alive, he seemed to have a goal in mind. We didn't seem to have one."

Board President Rhonda McCullough, who is Je'Niece McCullough's mother and Bernie Mac's widow, said she was unfamiliar with the details of the organization's finances.

"Not really knowing what a foundation entails, you learn as you go," she said.

A Tribune review of federal and state records for 2007-12 found the organization spent a total of $767,636 during that period.

Of that amount, $101,982 went to charity, about half to the Foundation for Sarcoidosis Research and half to the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System. The charity's 2013 tax report is not yet public, but it did donate another $50,000 to the U. of I. health system that year, a hospital spokeswoman said.

About $121,600 during the 2007-12 period went to salaries paid to Rhonda McCullough's two sisters, who work for the charity.

Records show that more than $200,000 was paid out to two firms that have similar names to companies run by Edward Williams, who is treasurer of the Bernie Mac Foundation. Those companies have the same office address as the charity.

Mary Ann Grossett, executive director of the Bernie Mac Foundation, told the Tribune in a letter: "I do not know about Attorney Williams with respect to his companies."

She added: "I only know that my brother-in-law, Bernard McCullough (Bernie Mac), thought the world of him."

The Illinois attorney general's office, following questions from the Tribune about the charity, has asked the Bernie Mac Foundation "to provide additional documentation to address our concerns," said spokeswoman Maura Possley.

Contacted by the Tribune for this story, Williams said in an email that he could not comment while the attorney general's office audits the charity.

Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, whose husband has sarcoidosis, resigned as honorary chair of the Bernie Mac Foundation on March 20, after the Tribune contacted her about the charity.

Attorney Joseph Ament, the nonprofit's secretary, declined to answer detailed spending questions, citing confidentiality. "The principal beneficiary of the Bernie Mac Foundation is the University of Illinois," he said.

But charitable programs constituted only 29 percent of total spending in 2012 and 13 percent overall for the 2007-12 period. Those proportions fall far below the 65 percent benchmark recommended by the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance and the 75 percent threshold recommended by CharityNavigator.