Ohio AG Yost suing 'sham' charity that took thousands meant for East Palestine residents

Haley BeMiller
The Columbus Dispatch
Sulphur Run in East Palestine continues to be cleaned and tested after a train derailed Feb. 3. An overheated wheel bearing caused the dangerous derailment that spilled more than 100,000 gallons of toxic chemicals into the air and a fire burst into flames that night.

A sham charity pocketed thousands of dollars after claiming to collect donations for East Palestine residents following the catastrophic train derailment, a new lawsuit says.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost announced Tuesday that he's suing Mike Peppel , a Leetonia resident who allegedly operated a fake charity fund advertised to benefit East Palestine. Residents' lives were upended on Feb. 3 when a Norfolk Southern train with an overheated wheel bearing went off the tracks and spilled toxic chemicals into the air, water and soil.

Five of the derailed cars contained vinyl chloride , which the railroad later vented and burned to prevent an explosion.

Ohio train derailment: Families weigh long-term futures in East Palestine

According to the complaint, Peppel's Ohio Clean Water Fund sent text messages to collect donations for bottled water and said it had partnered with the Second Harvest Food Bank of the Mahoning Valley. Peppel raised $141,000 from roughly 3,200 donors, but he spent over $100,000 on fees and gave just $10,000 to the food bank after being confronted about his activities.

Yost said food bank representatives complained to his office and said they hadn't authorized a partnership with Peppel.

A website for Peppel's fund was taken down after Yost filed the lawsuit. Peppel told WFMJ in Youngstown last week that he hasn't kept any money and plans to donate more to the food bank.

Peppel previously worked for state Sen. Michael Rulli, R-Salem, and U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Marietta, whose districts include East Palestine. An Ohio Senate GOP spokesman declined to comment on pending litigation. A spokesman for Johnson emphasized that Peppel worked there several years ago, but said he should be held accountable for any illegal behavior.

A consulting firm run by former TimkenSteel CEO Ward "Tim" Timken, Jr. planned to hire Peppel after he left Rulli's office in February and announced the move in a March news release. The firm, McKinley Strategies, decided not to bring him on when allegations about the charity fund came to light.

Peppel's biography page for the firm had been removed from its website as of Tuesday, according to online archives.

Yost warned people against attempting to profit off the tragedy in East Palestine.

“The idea that somebody would so brazenly exploit a disaster situation and the good hearts of people who want to help is unconscionable,” Yost said. “I’m mad as hell about this, and we’re going to make sure this sham charity gets shut down.”

In a March Facebook post , the food bank encouraged people who want to help to donate to them directly.

Haley BeMiller is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.

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