A million little pieces

The effect of a fraudster on Kitchener-Waterloo

HG Watson

Recent revelations that a local volunteer and former national executive director of national charity 5 Days for the Homeless had been convicted on fraud charges has left a community grasping for answers.

Robb Farago is well-known in Waterloo for volunteering for a seemingly endless list of charities and community initiatives, including Movember, Ignite Waterloo, KW Polar Plunge and the aforementioned 5 Days. He pled guilty to two counts of criminal charges related to fraud in early 2012, while he was continuing to volunteer.

The Waterloo Region Record broke the story on May 24, releasing the information that Farago had fraudulently written cheques totaling $4,273.63 from the KW Polar Plunge to himself. The Record reported he was caught after he fraudulently obtained a certified cheque from the Bank of Montreal, totaling $5,800*. He was sentenced on Sept. 5, 2012 to 12 months probation and 40 hours community service.

In the months after his sentencing, he continued to go to classes at KW Engage, a local community engagement seminar, and volunteered as a MoBro for the popular Movember charity. Yet rumours — some going back to 2011 — swirled in the community that Farago was involved in some wrongdoing. As they became more rampant, the man in question retreated from the public eye. It was only after a blog post that people began to talk publically about what happened. Why is it that it took so long for Farago’s situation to be made public?

Jane Barkley, a social media manager and popular blogger, considered Farago a friend. Both were active on social media so naturally they crossed paths via Twitter. “It was just in that standard way that you become aware of people because they’re very vocal and active,” she said, referring to Farago’s large social media presence.

The two were in the same social circle of Waterloovians who spend a great deal of time doing charity work. Farago even procured tickets to a sold out Waterloo Ignite event for Barkley after she expressed disappointment online that she wasn’t able to get one.

It was in the fall of 2012 that Barkley began to hear rumours that Farago may have had improper dealings with some local charities. “There wasn’t any solid information,” she said. “When I first heard about it, the rumour was that a significant sum of money was taken from [some organizations].” It became clear that there was some truth to the rumours just as she began to loose contact with Farago.

Barkley wasn’t the only person to be affected by the rumours. Karl Allen-Muncey is the founder of Cutegecko and the co-committee chair for Movember in the region. He came to know Farago as an active volunteer for Movember.

Farago captained his own Movember team the McMoBros, which raised $2,445 last November according to their MoSpace page, and organized two fundraising events at Maxwell’s Music House, one in 2011 and in 2012. He also volunteered at the Movember Ball, the capstone event for Movember in the region. Allen-Muncey even trusted him enough to handle money at the door of that event.

As early as November 2011, Allen-Muncey was warned that Farago may have been involved in some improper dealings regarding fundraising. “Because there was nothing necessarily concrete I obviously wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt,” said Allen-Muncey.

But a year later, the rumours had only grown stronger and more frequent. “Interestingly, the people that you would hear it from were people you genuinely respect and admire within this community,” Allen-Muncey said. “I think there was an awareness a lot earlier from figureheads in the community…of this activity taking place.” In November 2012, Farago resigned from the Movember committee.

Because Movember funds go directly to Movember Canada, the national organization, Allen-Muncey could not confirm whether funds Farago had raised personally were received by the organization, nor could he about any other Movember volunteer in Waterloo.

Matt Matheson, who works at Movember Canada, confirmed that they had received funds from Farago from the 2011 Maxwell’s event, as well as his pledge money from 2012. They had no record of him hosting an event in 2012, but Matheson noted that is not uncommon, as not all Movember teams will register events that benefit the charity. “We’d have to take him at his word in this case given that funds had been submitted in the past for the event as well,” said Matheson in an email.

After months of silence, Barkley and Allen-Muncey finally heard from Farago on May 1 when he sent a letter to both apologizing for his past behaviour. The letter starts, “As I am sure you’ve heard, I was involved in fraudulent activity over this past year involving community groups. It was wrong and outright disgusting and I am full of nothing but guilt and remorse for my actions.” Many other community members also reportedly received the letter.

For Barkley, the letter from Farago was a call to action. She took to her blog and wrote a post directed at Farago, whom she dubbed “Mr. Nice Guy.” In it, she wrote, “Mr. Nice Guy looked at people who were hopeful, who were working to see the best in others, who shared this crazy notion they could help make the world a better place, and used it to extort money for personal gain. I doubt very much his redemption will come through an email, copied and pasted.” At press time, the post has 35 comments, most anonymous, many expressing their shock and feelings of betrayal because of Farago’s actions.

Barkley was motivated to write her blog post because she was concerned that nobody in the community was talking publically about Farago’s actions. “I don’t have any hatred in my heart towards Robb in any way,” she said. “I feel it’s important to talk more openly because so many people know what’s happened and so many more individuals were impacted.” She noted that many of the young professionals who work with local non-profits might feel the obligation to be nice rather than say something that could damage their own reputation.

Muncey-Allen expressed concern that Farago’s actions could damage the reputation of other charities in the area. “This is such an incredible community,” he said, noting that people rally for causes. “When somebody starts jeopardizing that, there’s a real risk to the entire eco-system.”

Unfortunately, Farago’s actions are not an isolated incident. Jane Hennig is the executive director at the Volunteer Action Centre, a local non-profit that assists other non-profits with recruiting volunteers. With more than ten years of experience working with non-profits, she has seen people take advantage of charities before. “[It’s] not a once in a lifetime experience,” she said.

Hennig couldn’t speak directly to the events surrounding Farago. However, she’s not entirely surprised people are concerned about the impact his actions have had on the community. “In the past, I wouldn’t say in this community as much as in other communities, where there is a negative story like this it does effect confidence.” It’s not necessarily that people no longer trust charities, but simply, as Henning puts it, that there is a “tension” surrounding the philanthropy that propels the entire sector.

So what should one do when fraud or inappropriate behaviour is suspected? “As soon as you have proof or even a concern is the time to raise [it],” said Hennig. That can mean involving the police, or in some cases simply removing the volunteer in question from a position where they could do damage. Hennig was also emphatic that risk management can save non-profits a lot of headaches.

In the wake of these revelations, some local non-profits are making changes to how they handle their finances. “In the long run, we’re already thinking about next year, ‘how can we handle our funds so it’s transparent and accountable?’” said Jim Tigwell, the organizer of Waterloo’s chapter of Headshots from the Heart — another charity Farago volunteered for, though he had no responsibility for finances there. “Really it’s something that we should have been doing before.”

One of the hardest hit organizations was Wilfrid Laurier University’s 5 Days for the Homeless. Laiya Carayannopoulos is the current director of 5 Days for the Homeless Laurier. She wasn’t volunteering for the organization when Farago was involved with the campaign in 2011. It was shortly after Farago’s dismissal from the organization that he was caught after he fraudulently obtained a certified cheque from BMO. The cheque was meant to go to 5 days*.

Carayannopoulos dealt with the aftermath of Farago’s actions as a volunteer in 2013. “Because of that incident, the way we deal with the money changed,” she said, noting that Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union now holds the money until it is sent out to the receiving charities. She also remains vigilant when handling donations, which this year, she estimates, reached somewhere between $12,000 and $13,000.

Farago, meanwhile, has laid low since his history has become public. After the publication of Barkley’s blog post, he deleted all of his social media accounts, including his Twitter and LinkedIn. He also purged his blog, robbfarago.ca, and declined the CCE’s request for an interview.

A few posts from his blog hint that all was not well for Farago. On Sep. 6, 2012 — the day after Farago received his sentence stemming from fraud charges — he wrote, “over the past year there has been a lot weighing on my mind and it’s caused more its own share of issues. But yesterday, like some magic spell, everything that has been holding me back, keeping me preoccupied, finally came to a head. My family has been struggling with some heavy things, and yesterday, we received some very good news and Life [sic] can move forward. I am elated and ready to take on the world again!”

We can’t speculate what Farago is feeling today. But the confusion and betrayal expressed by many of the people certainly show that this is a community still coming to terms with controversy born from a person many once called a friend.

*An earlier version of this story contained an inaccuracy regarding Farago’s criminal record. This version has been corrected.