Milwaukee violence prevention fund, mayor had 'no clue' it existed

Milwaukee's Violence Prevention Fund grants money to groups trying to stop violence, but two of the three city leaders who were supposed to control it tell FOX6 they didn't have a say on the funds because they didn't know it existed.

"I had no clue," said Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson, one of the three who was supposed to be directing the fund.

Milwaukee Commissioner of Health Kirsten Johnson, the second person who was supposed to guide the fund, also didn't know about it. "It’s important to me in my role to assure that the money that touches the Health Department is available to everyone."

The Common Council alderman who led the committee charged with debating and hammering out the city's budget, the Finance and Personnel Committee, also said he did not know about the fund's existence.

"I’m, admittedly, rather shocked because I think that type of money should have been acknowledged during the budget hearing, and how that money is utilized to assist in violence prevention, it should have been talked about," said Milwaukee Alderman Michael Murphy. "I’m just perplexed on how they were able to draw down on this without that coming into the city of Milwaukee as a grant and aid because that’s normal, standard operating procedure."

Public records, which FOX6 obtained in an open record request, show where the money was spent. Documents also show who approved recent disbursements: Arnitta Holliman, who led the city's Office of Violence Prevention until her abrupt firing on August 3, 2022. The director is the third person charged with overseeing the fund. 

Since its inception in 2017, the city of Milwaukee has used the fund to give away hundreds of thousands of dollars with the stated goal of stopping violence.

This mystery starts in 2017 when then-Mayor Tom Barrett, then-Health Commissioner Bevan Baker and then-Office of Violence Prevention Director Reggie Moore signed the agreement to set up the Violence Prevention Fund housed at the Greater Milwaukee Foundation.

Here's how it works: national charitable groups and others donate to the fund. Their checks go straight to the Greater Milwaukee Foundation for this particular fund. Then the agreement says three city leaders, the mayor, the health commissioner and the Office of Violence Prevention director advise where the funds will go. They are to choose one person to share grant recommendations with the Greater Milwaukee Foundation. That person was the Office of Violence Prevention director.

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Those with the foundation said they then do due diligence to make sure the groups getting money are qualified nonprofits, and then the foundation sends the funds.

It wasn't necessarily a secret fund. A Greater Milwaukee Foundation news release announced it in 2017, when Google was donating to the city's violence prevention efforts. The news release invited corporations, groups and individuals to make donations, which are tax-deductible. The release said the fund would be used to support the plans outlined in Milwaukee's Blueprint for Peace.

In 2021, the fund gave $150,000 to the Medical College of Wisconsin to support 414Life, which tries to interrupt violence.

So far in 2022, the Violence Prevention Fund had already planned to give away $316,000, according to the documents reviewed by FOX6. Most of it was planned for the Safe Summer Initiative, including $170,000 to Uniting Garden Homes to spearhead teams of people going to areas with the most shootings, to try to stop potentially violent conflicts, help get resources to those at risk for violence, stand against gun violence and help kids heal. 

Documents from the record request show which groups Uniting Garden Homes was then paying for that work: ComForce MKE, Lock N Da Game, MSTA, Black Men Build, The Village Group, Brothers First, and Sister Strength.

As part of the same program, a separate $25,000 was planned for Westcare, along with $35,000 for Youth Advocate Programs and $11,000 for the Good Samaritan Westside Community Church.

In another planned disbursement, the fund planned $10,000 to sponsor the Black Arts Festival Milwaukee.

The foundation also sent a payment of $65,000 to the Chicago-based Circle Foundation. FOX6 News asked the organization what they were doing with the money, but they didn't respond.

"It does seem that most of the money has gone to community organizations, appropriately," Commissioner Johnson said in an interview with FOX6.

Moving forward, the commissioner said she wants to keep the fund open but added everyone should know the money is there, and any group could apply for it. Like the original agreement states, she said the mayor, the violence prevention director and health commissioner should sign off on the grants. She also said they should publish where the money is going.

"I think it’s really important that we have access to money to really fund the community organizations on the ground who are doing the work in real-time and that there is some flexibility for an emergency use or limited-time use or there’s a specific incident that we want to address and really have community organizations respond quickly. This fund gives us that agility," said Commissioner Johnson. "It’s important that we do have access to money to fund violence prevention in a way that is agile and in real-time because the [Common] Council, as an organization, it just takes time for money to move through. We really need to be able to respond quickly and have money available to do that."

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Under the current system, there have been some outside checks and balances. Groups making the donations to the fund often ask for reports, documented metrics, and explanations for how the money was used. For example, documents uncovered in the open record request show the Office of Violence Prevention submitted a report in 2021 explaining to the Public Welfare Foundation how the city's fund spent a $200,000 grant.

The national group the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which donated the money to the Violence Prevention Fund that was then shared with the Medical College of Wisconsin, expects a report summarizing how the city has used the donations. The foundation also did site visits and had been in communication with Holliman, e-mails show. 

A Casey Foundation senior official told Holliman to use grant money to pay for a trip to the White House and Baltimore, a trip that sparked conflict between the mayor's office and Holliman, and which preceded her ouster. 

FOX6 News asked Barrett and Moore to comment on why the fund was set up. We didn't hear back.

"We’ll be looking at that as well," Mayor Johnson said about the impetus for the fund set up before his tenure. "I wish that I would have known, certainly. And as I said: we’re looking forward in the Office of Violence Prevention, so now that we know about the fund, we’ll be able to address those things in the future as well."