Trial sheds spotlight on risk of crowdfunding

Over three months, almost 400 people donated more than $27,000 to help the families of three men who died in a boating accident on Lake of the Woods.

Now, a Baudette, Minn., woman is on trial for stealing the donations. It’s a case that surely troubles anyone who contributes to the ubiquitous GoFundMe drives that are set up to help people. How do we know where the money is going?

Retina Reyellen LaValla, 28, set up the page but then used some of the money donated for bills and groceries, according to the charges against her.

The Grand Forks Herald reports that a judge has decided to move the trial out of Lake of the Woods County in order to find an unbiased jury pool.

But her lawyer’s argument against the charges should give pause to anyone considering donating to fundraising sites.

[Alan Bradley] Fish argued LaValla didn’t raise the money with an ulterior motive, and she “ultimately gave 100 percent of funds she raised” to the families.

In fact, she didn’t have to give 100 percent over, he continued, and the idea that all of the money had to be split three ways among the families is “arbitrary,” he said.

“In fact, Retina LaValla made no promises whatsoever as to what amount of money would be turned over, what percentage would be given to any particular person or family, when it would be turned over, nor what she would be keeping, borrowing, using and replacing, or otherwise for herself for her time, efforts and expenses,” Fish said.

GoFundMe also takes a cut of donations and Fish said if 100 percent of donations don’t go to the intended recipient, that isn’t any different than big charities.

The money went into LaValla’s own personal account “according to the GoFundMe’s own rules,” becoming her “personal property.”

“(The state) is simply trying to make up rules and control expenses … all because the case involves families of deceased individuals that have gained widespread sympathy through misleading and inaccurate publicity,” Fish said. “The law is to be blind of such sympathy and public pressure.”

“She knew she was stealing money and ultimately had to go to her father in an attempt to bail her out of trouble once law enforcement came asking questions,” countered County Attorney James Austad.

“The swindle occurred because the donors relied on the representation by the defendant that the money was ‘support for our boys family,'” he said.