Millions of your tax dollars at work: Charity stages dating seminars like ‘Avoid Falling for a Jerk’

By: - February 10, 2020 8:00 am
Healthy Relationsips Iowa

Healthy Relationships Iowa is a $4.2 million taxpayer-funded program that offers workshops on dating, marriage and workplace relationships. The program offers Walmart gift cards as an incentive to enroll. (Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and Healthy Relationships Iowa workshop materials.)

A faith-based Iowa charity is spending $4.2 million of taxpayers’ money staging workshops on dating and marriage.

The dating workshops offered by the nonprofit Iowa Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives are called “How to Avoid Falling for a Jerk (or Jerk-ette).” They are described by the center as “eight-hour, hands-on, interactive” workshops. In a nod to the 1960s television show, “The Beverly Hillbillies,” they include a segment on the perils of dealing with in-laws, “You Can’t Marry Jethro Without Gettin’ the Clampetts.”

The sessions, along with healthy-marriage workshops and other forms of relationship-building sessions, are held in coffee shops, prisons, drug treatment centers, shelters and halfway houses around the state. They are free to those who attend, but are paid for by the charity with a $4.25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Each session costs taxpayers at least $750 to stage, and some are attended by only one person.

With the exception of prisoners and others who are compelled to attend,  most of the people who enroll in the workshops are recruited with the promise of a $50 Walmart gift card — a taxpayer-funded incentive that appears to have run afoul of federal grant requirements.

According to DHHS, one goal of the program is to “reduce divorce rates” in Iowa. But in the years since the grant was awarded, the annual number of divorces in Iowa has grown steadily, from 3,785 in 2015 to 7,154 in 2018.

The workshops are offered as part of the charity’s Healthy Relationships Iowa program. As explained in a promotional YouTube video, the center believes that “Iowans can be stronger people by strengthening their relationship skills. And if we can strengthen the relationship skills of Iowans, then we can strengthen our state across the board, as well.”

Federal records indicate that aside from a few hundred dollars of investment income, the $4.2 million grant from DHHS’s Administration for Children and Families has been the center’s sole source of income since 2015.

The center is run by 79-year-old Daryl VanderWilt of West Des Moines, who serves as the organization’s president, secretary, treasurer and sole board member. At various times in the past, the center’s board of directors has included two other people: VanderWilt’s wife, Suellen, and Lance Scanlan, a former Iowan who now lives in Michigan.

Although Healthy Relationships Iowa is funded entirely with tax dollars, the fact that the money is passed through a private, tax-exempt charity means the manner in which it’s spent is largely concealed from public view.

The charity’s IRS filings provide some details on spending, but they also raise questions.

For example, in 2017 the charity reported to the IRS that it routed $120,000 to an unspecified “parent company” for overhead expenses.

When asked about that, VanderWilt acknowledged there is no parent company. He said the $120,000 was paid to himself and to his wife as personal compensation for their services to the charity. He said his wife “works full-time” for the charity. 

But the organization’s tax returns say she works eight hours per week and he works 16 hours per week, all without pay.

Healthy Relationships Iowa salaries
The taxpayer-funded charity that runs Healthy Relationships Iowa told the IRS the charity’s president worked without pay. But he says he and his wife collected $120,000 in pay in 2017, which was reported to the IRS as payment to a ‘parent company’ for overhead expenses. (Source: 2017 tax return filed with the IRS.)

Between 2010 and 2017, the center reported six loans between VanderWilt and the charity, totaling $107,125. VanderWilt says those aren’t actually loans, but money he is owed by the charity for expenses. He said he fronted the cost of equipment purchases for the charity, such as 190 iPads that cost more than $50,000 and are used in the workshops. He said he is not charging the charity interest for the use of his money, and is being repaid at the rate of $1,650 per month.

Healthy Relationships Iowa
Tax returns for the charity that runs Healthy Relationships Iowa show several loans between the charity and its president. He says the loans actually represent money that’s owed to him by the charity for expenses he incurred. (Source: Various tax returns filed with the IRS.)

In 2016, the charity’s sole source of reported income was taxpayer money, aside from $117 in investment income. Yet it paid $8,000 that year to International Cooperating Ministries, a self-described Christian organization dedicated to helping “entire nations to be blanketed with healthy churches.” The $8,000 was specifically designated for ICM’s “Church Grow” program. 

VanderWilt initially said the $8,000 donation was paid from his “private checking account,” but later said it was paid with a check drawn on the charity’s bank account. Even so, he said, the $8,000 wasn’t grant money, or even the charity’s money, but “my private money.” He said the federal grant was used to pay a salary to himself and his wife, and he then returned $8,000 of that money to the charity so it could pass the money on to ICM in the form of a donation.

He said he’s not sure why he structured the donation that way, and he acknowledged the charity’s tax returns don’t show the receipt of $8,000 from him. He said he doesn’t know why that is.

Healthy Relationships Iowa
Although the charity was funded almost entirely with a federal grant in 2016, it directed $8,000 to a Christian church-building program. The charity’s president says the money came from his personal funds, which he collected from the charity, then returned to the charity to use for the donation. (Source: 2016 tax return filed with the IRS.)

Under the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, faith-based organizations cannot use tax dollars and government grants to support what the courts have characterized as “inherently religious” activities, but they can use the money for non-religious social services. 

In a 2017 newsletter to his workshop trainers, VanderWilt wrote, “The feds like to fund faith-based organizations because of their practice of never never giving up on people. They like this premium respect given people, especially to those that are needy.”

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the Iowa Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives is one of 45 organizations around the country that were awarded grants totaling $50,805,000 in 2015 for “healthy marriage promotion.”

The department says the Iowa center’s use of Walmart gift cards as an incentive for people to enroll is allowed, but adds that “any unredeemed portion of a gift card must be returned” to the charity as a rebate or credit so the money can be spent on other allowable aspects of the program. The agency says this requirement necessitates an agreement between the charity and Walmart involving the return of any unredeemed cards.

VanderWilt said he has no such agreement with Walmart, doesn’t monitor the use of the gift cards, and was unaware of any requirement to do so.

“It’s fine to have that in writing,” Suellen VanderWilt said, “but they have not followed up and enforced that.”

When asked what steps DHHS takes to ensure grant recipients comply with all spending requirements, the department said the recipients themselves “are responsible for ensuring that they comply with all applicable federal regulations and the terms and conditions of their award.”   

Daryl VanderWilt said he expects the charity will have distributed about $200,000 worth of gift cards over the five-year duration of the program.

Iowa center previously received $1 million grant

VanderWilt founded the Iowa Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in 2005, four years after President George W. Bush created the federal Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. 

For the first few years, VanderWilt’s charity operated on a budget of $100,000 or less, focusing on human services and what he called “faith-based international church building.” 

In 2009, DHHS awarded the charity a $1 million contract to strengthen other nonprofits in Iowa. The money passed from DHHS to the center and then to the other nonprofits in the form of training and sub-grants.

In September 2015, DHHS announced the grant awards for the promotion of healthy marriages.  The Iowa charity was one of the grant recipients, and was eventually awarded $4.2 million — $850,000 per year for five years — for what would become the Healthy Relationships Iowa program. 

Shortly after the grant was confirmed, VanderWilt posted a message online, looking for what he called “Christian marriage bloggers” who would “drive people to our website.” He wrote that the curriculum for the workshops he planned to hold was developed by Pastor John Van Epp, author of the book, “How to Avoid Falling in Love With a Jerk.”

Today, the Iowa center’s website includes dating videos such as, “Don’t Be a Jerk or Jerk-ette,” and, “Relationship DUI: Are You Sure You’re in Love?”

It also includes a welcome message and endorsement from Van Harden and Bonnie Lucas, the morning-show hosts on Des Moines’ WHO Radio, and a video of Gov. Kim Reynolds signing a Marriage Week proclamation at the WHO studios while thanking VanderWilt’s organization for asking her to do it. The proclamation encourages the efforts of “faith communities” and others to establish “healthy marriage and relationship education programs.”    

While promoting the workshops on WHO in 2018, VanderWilt said federal officials had encouraged him to “give the people an incentive” for attending workshops, which is why participants receive a Walmart gift card. (Recipients sign a pledge to refrain from using their gift cards to buy alcohol, firearms, tobacco, music, movies or video games.)

The center’s field systems coordinator, Cindy Welsher, says not everyone who attends the workshops is lured there by the gift cards. “There’s definitely some, but most come for the benefits of the workshop,” she said.

Healthy Relationships Iowa workshop.
Trainer Aprile Goodman leads a workshop on healthy marriages in Ottumwa, Iowa, on Jan. 25, 2019. The workshop was attended by two couples and was paid for with a federal grant to the Healthy Relationships Iowa program.

When asked who the program hoped to attract, VanderWilt told WHO, “It’s for everybody – Mr. and Mrs. Iowa.” According to DHHS, the program is supposed to target low-income individuals, at-risk youth, homeless high school students, prisoners and “and the growing Latino population.” VanderWilt says the workshops are held in counties where those target populations reside, but are open to everyone “with no litmus test.”

State records indicate the center has no employees, is run out of VanderWilt’s home, and its trainers are all independent contractors who are not supervised by the center. In fact, the center stated in court records last year that it exercises “no meaningful control” over the trainers, who are “almost entirely self-directed, with no oversight by the center” other than ensuring the workshops meet the requirements of the federal grant.

In a 2018 email to all of the trainers, VanderWilt reminded them they were not employees but independent contractors and so “taxes have not been taken from your compensation. You have full use of your money. And that’s a good thing.”

The state initially challenged VanderWilt on that point, arguing that the center was liable for unpaid employment-related taxes owed to the state. An administrative law judge agreed, but VanderWilt took the state to Iowa District Court. The dispute was quickly resolved through an out-of-court settlement.

State records indicate the center’s trainers are responsible for recruiting all of the people who attend their workshops  — and they don’t always have much success. Some workshops have been attended by only one person, and the center’s newsletters indicate that about half the people who register in advance don’t show up. 

Sessions for prison inmates, which offer advice on how to maintain a good balance between home and work life, are better attended, partly because some of those who enroll are there as a condition of parole or probation.

Not all of the prison workshops have gone smoothly. In a 2018 email to the trainers, Welsher reported that during a session at Polk County’s Fort Des Moines Community Corrections Complex, inmates used their workshop iPads to access the internet. When the tablets were handed back in, some were no longer working.

On a recent Saturday, trainer Aprile Goodman offered a six-hour healthy-marriage workshop at The Hub coffee shop in Ottumwa. At least four couples registered, but only two showed up. They watched brief segments of the TV show “Modern Family,” and spoke to Goodman about the challenges they face at home. Both couples seemed pleased with the session and asked Goodman for advice on where they might go for additional help.

VanderWilt currently has a full slate of workshops scheduled around Iowa through the first week of August, by which time the $4.2 million federal grant is expected to be depleted.

He said that by then he hopes to have trained about 8,000 Iowans in building healthy relationships. He said he realizes some people might question why tax dollars are used for that effort, but he’s confident the money has been spent in an appropriate fashion.

“If someone thinks taxpayer money should be spent other ways, we can understand that,” he told the Iowa Capital Dispatch. “But really, in terms of building up the state of Iowa, you should be applauding what we do.”

Public funding for faith-based groups dates back 19 years 

The use of federal money for relationship building grew out of President George W. Bush’s 2001 creation of the federal Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

At the time, critics alleged the office was an attempt to steer taxpayer money to conservative religious groups that supported the Bush administration and that it violated the traditional separation of church and state.

The federal effort faced several legal challenges, including an Iowa lawsuit tied to a program called InnerChange, which was based at the Newton Correctional Facility. In June 2006, U.S. District Judge Robert W. Pratt of Iowa ruled the program had unconstitutionally used taxpayer money for a religious program that awarded special privileges to inmates who accepted its Christian evangelical teachings.

The program was operated by Prison Fellowship Ministries, run by Watergate conspirator Chuck Colson, a close friend of Walter Kautzky, then the director of the Iowa Department of Corrections. 

“For all practical purposes,” Pratt wrote in his ruling, “the state has literally established an Evangelical Christian congregation within the walls of one of its penal institutions, giving the leaders of that congregation, i.e., InnerChange employees, authority to control the spiritual, emotional, and physical lives of hundreds of Iowa inmates.”

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing.