IRS records show the Pasco County-based national charity Kids Wish Network (KWN) collected $13.9 million last year but spent less than a penny on the dollar actually granting wishes to children with life-threatening illnesses.

The combined executive salaries of the two top Kids Wish Network managers – $340,000 – totaled nearly three times as much as the $129,064 that KWN spent on wishes for dying kids across America.

Professional fundraisers hired by KWN raked in $12,619,850 in 2017 and kept 85 percent of that money – $10,775,992 – for fees and expenses. Kids Wish received a grand total of $1,843,858 – or about 15 pennies for every dollar donated – through marketing techniques such as mailers and phone solicitation.

KWN frequently makes media splashes by giving away surplus donated by toy companies. That was the case Wednesday in Lake Wakes when 18 KWN staff members and CFO Tam Lai Keenan showed up with a load of yo-yos, games, puzzles, stuffed animals and other small toys you might find at the Family Dollar store for a Christmas giveaway.

“About $200,000 worth of toys and necessity items,” Lai Keenan told 8 On Your Side.

For that giveaway, they partnered with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office which promoted the event.

On rare occasions, KWN picks up funeral expenses for the families of children who succumb to childhood illnesses. Last year KWN told the IRS it spent $4,225 of its $13.9 million in revenue to defray expenses for four funerals across the nation.

Controversial Past

8 On Your Side has been investigating Kids Wish business practices for the past 16 years. The pattern hasn’t changed much. Fundraisers get the lion’s share and dying kids receive the least.

Small wonder that a 2013 data-crunching project by CNN, the Center for Investigative Reporting and the St. Petersburg Times labeled KWN the #1 worst charity in America.

KWN donations plummeted by $4 million after all the national notoriety associated with those news reports. Even now, five years later, the nonprofit watchdog group Charity Navigator awards KWN zero stars out of a possible four based on its current business practices. But KWN still generates millions from kind-hearted donors.

In 2012, Meanda Dubay, a former KWN wish grantor turned whistleblower, told 8 On Your Side that KWN was not reporting to the IRS insider business deals between KWN Founder and former President Mark Breiner and the charity.

After our investigation confirmed Dubay’s claims, KWN amended two years of IRS financial reports to accurately reflect $1.7 million worth of fundraising business between Breiner and KWN, which still employed his mother-in-law at that time. KWN called the failure to disclose the insider business deals with Breiner’s marketing companies a “clerical” error.

Whistleblower Payback

KWN fired Dubay, told the FBI she had committed federal crimes and later sued her for libel and slander. Federal prosecutors never charged Dubay with any crime but the libel suit against the former wish granter was revived in January and is now in its sixth year. Among other things, it accuses Dubay of leaking trade secrets to 8 On Your Side and damaging the charity’s image.

KWN also tried to have me arrested in 2012 for violating a court injunction when I knocked on the door of the charity headquarters in Holiday. The charity’s 911 call was a false report. There was no injunction, never had been one and there was no arrest. The Pasco Sheriff’s office later apologized to 8 On Your Side for taking KWN’s injunction claims at face value.

Managers at KWN have always been reluctant to answer questions about their charity’s fundraising and spending practices. Wednesday was no exception. All that Lai Keenan wanted to talk about was toys.

“Kids Wish Network provides gifts to thousands of children a year and we’re very proud of what we do,” Lai Keenan said.