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When is Pressure on Charity Donors Elder Abuse?

A recent case out of Orange County poses some tough questions on the limits of charity donor solicitation, especially when it concerns the elderly. 98-year-old former developer and philanthropist James Emmi and his 84-year-old wife Catherine are suing Chapman University for breach of contract, fraud, deceit, and elder abuse in a suit filed this week. They allege that over a period of years Chapman President James Doti "preyed" on Emmi to snag millions for the construction of new school facilities.

Chapman and Doti, for their part, deny any wrongdoing and are "deeply saddened by the misstatements." What might undue influence on a wealthy elderly charity donor look like? Emmi says that after he donated $50,000 to Chapman for a new science building in 2005, university officials began regularly contacting him with requests for more money. The nonagenarian then received a stream of invitations to concerts, fundraisers, galas, and other events, where Doti cultivated him in the interest of further donations. Emmi, Doti said, was like "his brother" and "family," so why shouldn't family members help each other out with a few million? A $500,000 donation made the Emmis Chapman Citizens of the Year, and then came the pitch to donate at least $5 million to the university's new Center for Science and Technology. While Emmi initially declined, Chapman was just getting warmed up.

In September of 2013, Doti visited the Emmi residence, where he convinced the then 96-year-old senior to sign a pledge for $12 million for the prospective science facility including a building in his name, all of which Doti claimed would be finished by 2016 so that Emmi could live to see it. Emmi, at one time a member of Chapman's Board of Trustees, says that in forking over such a large amount of money to the university (60% of his net worth), he was pressured and exploited while in a state of confusion, asserting that neither he nor his wife remember signing Doti's pledge document.

Having already given $3 million, Emmi is demanding Chapman return that amount plus another $3 million for the trouble. The suit will make its way through the litigation process, but whatever the outcome, Emmi's case should lead us to examine what constitutes ethical fundraising, and when that might cross the line into elder financial abuse.

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