GoFundMe has announced that it will offer refunds to donors who contributed to a campaign for Lenin Vargas-Gutierrez that is part of an ongoing federal fraud investigation.
Vargas, a priest and pastor of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Starkville, is under investigation by the Department of Homeland Security for several instances of possible fraud, including a GoFundMe set up in February 2015 after he announced he had cancer.
According to a 37-page affidavit filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, Vargas lied about being diagnosed with cancer and was actually HIV-positive. The affidavit also says Vargas used the money from the GoFundMe and other donations for personal, rather than medical, expenses.
The affidavit says 57 people donated a total of $9,210 to the GoFundMe. Vargas reportedly withdrew $8,478.32 of the donated GoFundMe money between March 24 and April 13, 2015.
“… There are instances where individuals fabricate a diagnosis and commit fraud,” GoFundMe Regional Communications Manager Bartlett Jackson said in an email to The Dispatch. “In this case, GoFundMe has taken action, banned the individual and will offer refunds to the donors.”
Jackson said GoFundMe will contact donors to begin processing refunds.
GoFundMe’s statement also said the platform is backed by GoFundMe Guarantee, and that instances where GoFundMe, law enforcement or a user finds campaigns have been misused, donors are fully protected and will be refunded.
The statement notes that campaigns with misuses are rare, “making up less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all campaigns.”
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.