Mayor Lee P. Brown and other dignitaries attended a festive ceremony near City Hall last July 21, six weeks after Tropical Storm Allison battered Houston.
Thousands of families had lost cars in the devastating flood, so Brown was happy to provide a ray of sunshine through the Valentine Foundation, which was offering donated used cars to those with no insurance to pay for replacements. The Federal Emergency Management Agency later lauded the group as one of many "quiet heroes" of Allison.
Just a few months before, the Houston Chronicle had featured the Valentine Foundation in a story highlighting its program to remove gang tattoos from kids wanting to go straight.
And a few months after the City Hall ceremony, the foundation latched onto a new cause, sending out press releases seeking donations to buy a fire truck for the New York Fire Department after September 11. A second press release, headlined "New York Fire Department Endorses Houston Foundation's Effort," notified reporters that the NYFD was praising Valentine's head, Whitney Broach.
If the name Whitney Broach doesn't ring a bell, think back to 1993, when she got 15 minutes of fame that she's been hiding from ever since.
It started when a billboard went up along the Southwest Freeway advertising a "womb for rent." An anonymous woman was offering to be a surrogate mother for what her lawyer said was the going rate of $100,000.
The billboard got worldwide publicity, but when reporters started digging, they found out who the anonymous woman was -- Whitney Neuhaus Broach -- and what she was.
She's been convicted of fraud and money laundering in a New Orleans federal court for filing fictitious health insurance claims in connection with her weight-loss clinic. She's been the loser in a federal suit in which the government alleged she was charging women for tests using a bogus machine to detect breast cancer.
Broach, who has used many aliases throughout her checkered business career, was even arrested -- but never charged -- in the 1983 killing of her then-husband. The Chronicle reported in 1993 that New Orleans law enforcement officials said that Broach, then known as Cherie Ward Werling, "presented a battered-wife defense and was never prosecuted for the killing."
"When I heard her name in connection with this charity, I just about had a coronary," says Dan Parsons of the Houston Better Business Bureau. "She's psychotic and a con artist."
The Valentine Foundation is a so-called 501(c)(3) organization, a nonprofit group. Most legitimate organizations list their tax information on Web sites such as Guidestar, but her foundation doesn't. It has a post office box address but no street address. Its phone number reaches only an answering machine, which says, "We are with clients." Calls are not returned.
Broach apparently has big dreams for her group. She sees the foundation as eventually having a budget of almost $3.5 million, according to a copy of one unspecified grant application obtained by Parsons.
The March 2001 application deals only with the tattoo-removal program, but calls for spending $1.5 million on two "fully equipped mobile units" to remove tattoos. It also seeks funds for a van, video production equipment, computers and staff.
Broach's résumé is included. Her courtroom experience is not directly noted, although it says she "wrote federal law briefs for various federal courts throughout the United States." It also says she "wrote one of the first books on child abuse" and "serves on the board for [KPRC's] Akin's Army." Parsons says Broach no longer has any connection with Channel 2's consumer advocate.
The group has done at least some good work -- the cars donated at the City Hall ceremony, as far as can be determined, were legitimate. Gang tattoos have indeed been removed.
But the New York Fire Department took time out in the midst of the chaos of September 2001 to disavow any connection with the Valentine Foundation, not to mention the alleged praise cited in the group's second press release.
The NYFD spokesman mentioned in the press release, Stephen Rush, faxed a memo to Broach saying the foundation never had permission to use his name. The memo also said the New York mayor, fire and police commissioners and Rush never "approved and/or endorsed the Valentine Foundation and/or any of its activities in any way."
And at least one local woman -- and a charity group -- who thought they were getting the foundation's help each find themselves out $250.
The 30-year-old single mother of four, who did not want her name used, is a receptionist. With too much of her paycheck going to car repairs, she sought help from the Westside Homeless Partnership, a group funded by 27 churches that helps residents in the Spring Branch area.
Westside pointed her to Broach.
"We had a former client who used to cut [Broach's] grass, and he said she really did give away cars," says Westside caseworker Betty Roy. The group had just helped a client obtain a car from another organization, Women in Sync, simply by paying for tax, title and license. They thought working with the Valentine Foundation would be much the same.
"I just thought, or assumed, I guess, that it was an excellent foundation," Roy says.
Westside and the woman who would be getting the car each gave $250 to an auto garage to repair a car last October.
"I called [Broach] after I gave the money and she said, 'You should have your car in a couple of days,' " the woman says. "I asked her what kind of car it was going to be, and she said she found the perfect one for me but she wanted it to be a surprise."
The surprise was that there was no car forthcoming. There were weeks of trading phone calls -- "she was always in a meeting," both the woman and Roy say -- and then eventually Broach said to fax a letter asking for the money back.
"I faxed it and waited, and she said she never got it," the woman says. "Then I mailed her a letter, and she said she never got it."
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She says the repair shop owner (who could not be reached by the Houston Press) told her Broach had picked up the money but had not ordered any cars to be repaired. "He told me, 'If you have any dealings with her, get out,' " she says.
"I was desperate, totally desperate," the woman says. "I had this piece-of-crap car that I was putting all my money into and I just needed a new [used] one. It took a couple of paychecks, but I got the money together and I thought it would all work out."
The woman eventually went to the Better Business Bureau. Parsons says it was the first complaint the BBB has received against the foundation.
Roy, of the Westside group, says she will pay the victimized woman $250 for what she calls "our mistake." "They seemed so legit," she says. "I know one thing: The next time I'll be calling the Better Business Bureau first."