The Canyon Crest Academy Foundation has put a halt to an unauthorized website that purported to be collecting contributions for the school, according to Foundation officials. The website founder was a member of the Foundation board who has since been removed from his position.
The Foundation’s first indication that something was awry occurred on Aug. 21, when it was discovered that a CCA Foundation (CCAF) position e-mail account had been accessed — but it wasn’t a position that was currently filled, according to CCA Foundation Executive Director Joanne Couvrette. A board member with a different position had accessed the account and changed the signature line in e-mails sent out.
“That made us concerned,” said Couvrette. “Then one of our major donors found a website that wasn’t ours accepting donations on our behalf. A picture of the board member who had accessed the email account was on that website.”
Couvrette said once it was discovered, she reported the website to the CCAF board and the San Dieguito Union High School District, who consulted with its attorneys.
The website, Ixtus.us, was for the IXTUS Fund at The San Diego Foundation and included ways to donate to UC San Diego, San Diego libraries and the Surf San Diego 10K (a Memorial Day road race) in addition to CCA.
“All funds go directly to Canyon Crest Academy for the benefit of the students,” the website stated in a screenshot taken by Couvrette on Aug. 26. Although the CCA Foundation was not specifically mentioned, its logo was used.
The website for IXTUS remains online, although all references to CCA, UC San Diego, the libraries and the 10K have since been scrubbed from the site. Up until last week, the site included a donate page where credit card information could be entered, but that has since been replaced with a simple contact form.
Couvrette and Christina Tharp, the CCA Foundation’s vice president of finance, declined to name the board member in question because they said it was contrary to the Foundation’s mission and because the member has a child in the school.
“We didn’t intend to publicly call out this person,” Tharp said. “It’s unfortunate. We just want to get back to our real focus, which is providing CCA students with an unbelievable educational experience … This has been a big distraction.
“We wanted the public to know this had occurred and to be aware of it and to be extra-cautious in any attempt to donate,” Tharp said.
Couvrette said the Foundation has posted a list of all donors for the fiscal year to date as a way for donors to check to make sure donations went to the CCA Foundation and not to IXTUS.
In screenshots provided to this newspaper, former CCAF board member David Mittelstadt was identified as the “yprétis” of The IXTUS Foundation and his photo was posted on the site.
Mittelstadt had been with the board only since the beginning of the fiscal year in July, serving as vice president of major donors. He said he was interviewed over the phone and accepted by the CCA Foundation as a volunteer.
According to the site, IXTUS “works to develop relationships with organizations in and around San Diego. Identifying exceptional programs, the IXTUS Foundation draws organizations together and provides funding to create, collectively, a complete solution.”
Mittelstadt said “ixtus” means “fish” in Greek,and its letters were also a code among early Christians to refer to Jesus Christ, the origin of the Christian fish symbol. “Yprétis” means servant. Both are nods to his strong Christian faith — he said he believed that his fundraising site was what God intended him to do.
After becoming aware of the site, the San Dieguito Union High School District’s attorneys Stutz, Artiano, Shinoff & Holtz sent a cease-and-desist letter on Aug. 28 to both Mittelstadt and the San Diego Foundation in order to shut it down.
“At the request of a donor, The San Diego Foundation established the IXTUS Fund,” Nakata said in a statement, noting that the foundation works with individuals, businesses and agencies to establish funds with a purpose defined by the donor.
The SDUHSD letter also included a request to remove all references to CCA, the CCA Foundation and SDUHSD on Mittelstadt’s LinkedIn and NobleHour profiles, as well as a request for an accounting of all donations that had been received. The CCA Foundation also issued a press release on the matter, which was published by this newspaper on Sept. 17.
“We’re hoping that we caught it soon enough so that nobody else was a victim,” Tharp said.
Tharp said the Foundation also contacted the computer crimes unit of the San Diego Police Department, although no charges have been filed.
Mittelstadt said he wasn’t surprised by the cease-and-desist letter, as the San Diego Foundation notified him when they were approached by the district’s attorneys.
“It was clear they were going to be taking legal action and attempting to defame me,” Mittelstadt said. “The cease-and-desist letter was confirmation that they were trying to create problems for me instead of trying to solve their problems.”
Mittlestadt said he did not receive the letter until Sept. 2, but had removed the CCA Foundation logo from the IXTUS site by Aug. 26.
An emergency CCA Foundation board meeting was called on Aug. 31 in which the evidence was presented and Mittelstadt was removed from the CCA Foundation board.
Mittelstadt said the meeting was about 15 minutes long and while he was given an opportunity to respond, he chose not to defend himself, as it was clear that a decision had already been made.
“It had been made clear that the board planned to crucify me, so there was no point in continuing the dream of doing work for the benefit of the foundation,” Mittelstadt said.
In regard to accessing an unauthorized position email account, Mittelstadt said the password to all 20 CCAF position accounts are given to board members. Mittelstadt said he did access the business developer account, but only because he knew the position was not filled at the time; and in the year before he volunteered, he experienced an eight-month delay in response from the Foundation because no one was reading the email sent to that account.
As for the website, Mittelstadt said he wishes a board member had contacted him first to give him the opportunity to explain his actions rather than going straight to the attorneys.
“The site is not set up to do fundraising yet,” Mittelstadt said, noting that he set it up as a “test” platform to show the CCA Foundation what it could do.
On Sept. 16, Mittelstadt sent out an email saying that he had served the district with a cease-and-desist letter, asking it to remove the press release regarding the website.
If they don’t remove the press release, he said he asked that they remove the link to the CCA Foundation website from the CCA school website, remove the CCA Foundation office from CCA and terminate use of district email accounts.
According to the CCAF board, the CCA Foundation has had an online donation page where it has been successfully accepting online donations and there was no need to beta-test another donation portal, nor had they authorized any board member to do so.
While Mittelstadt maintains that the site could not accept donations, a screenshot provided by Couvrette from Sept. 14 showed that a donation was made to the fund by Mittelstadt in the amount of $104.60 and matched by Qualcomm. Mittelstadt said he made the payment via his credit card to test the system and it did not go through. He provided an email from the WePay team, which handled contributions to the site, that shows that the payments were not accepted.
“I’m still working out the details to make it possible for me to do fundraising to the IXTUS Fund,” Mittelstadt said.
According to Couvrette, there is no “beta” mode with classy.org, the platform of the website. If the website were a draft, it would not be visible on the Internet, she said.
In his short time on the CCAF board, Mittelstadt said he considered resigning several times. He said he found the board was more of an impediment than a help in his fundraising efforts and had many questions about the Foundation’s “serious problems,” such as its treatment of fellow former board members who have been removed.
“They decide that they don’t like you, and they find some way to slander you and get you off the board,” Mittelstadt said in an email. “If God chooses that San Diego should think poorly of me and thereby remove my ability to fundraise for San Diego non-profits, then I am His yprétis; I will simply accept and seek His alternative plans for me. CCAF and SDUHSD have problems. Hopefully, these can be raised in a way that will result in positive change.”
CCA Foundation President Carolyn Cohen asserted that the Foundation sought removal of Mittelstadt from the board solely because of his serious violations of bylaws, policies and procedures.
“The Canyon Crest Foundation and its volunteer board rely upon dedicated volunteers and appreciates all who volunteer to support its mission to enrich the experience of every student, every day,” Cohen said. “The action of this one individual will not deter us in the ongoing commitment to that mission.”