The Emperor Organization, a Florida nonprofit company supposedly set up to offer educational and charitable help to businesses, received three-quarters of a million dollars in federal money three and four years ago -- but now it's disappeared off the map and may have been nothing more than an illusion.
Florida Watchdog traveled from Miami to Tallahassee in an attempt to find clues as to the whereabouts of the firm and its president, Derron Bennett, who, according to records, received a grant of $200,000 in August 2009 and another $550,000 in April 2010.
Uncertainty has been growing since the organization appeared on the deadbeat list of the federal Internet site Recovery.gov, a website -- formed after the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- that tracks federal grant money doled out to companies that promise to create or retain jobs.
According to Recovery.org records, Emperor failed to submit required reports detailing and justifying its use of the federal handout.
The companys address is registered as 168 Chicopee Road, Suite 213, Crawfordville, about an hours drive from downtown Tallahassee. But, as is apparent in the video, it looks like a private residence. It also appears to be in an area of unpaved streets with little to no access.
In another document, the firm is said to occupy space in a Tallahassee office complex located at 1804 Miccosukee Commons, Unit 206. But when Florida Watchdog spoke with other occupants of the building -- one of them has been in the building since 2010 -- no one could recall anything about the company or its employees.
The manager of the office building told Florida Watchdog it has been three years since the firm was there, and that she had not heard anything from representatives or employees since. She also said she had never heard of Bennett, but recalled having spoken to someone named Alex.
Records at the Florida Department of Corporations, the government agency that registers all corporations of the state, indicate Alix Taylor and Derron Bennett as the principals of the organization. The records also show that the corporation was dissolved in 2010, and that its address is now a post office box in Tallahassee.
Further digging led to an address at 3003 Kevin St. in Tallahassee, belonging to Bennett, but it turned out to be rental property. Later, a search through the local phone directory yielded no results for the companys CEO.
Florida Watchdog requested copies of the documents filed by The Emperor Organization in their application for the grants. Here we include the document sent to us by the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, in Washington, D.C. As the document says, the federal agency doesnt have more information about The Emperor.
Given the complex process involved in applying for a Small Business Administration loan, or other federal programs, it is hard to imagine how such a large sum of money could have slipped through the cracks.
As we reported on April 5, The Emperor Organization claims to have used the first sum of money to create a website, increase business presence, get licensed and credentialed, increase publicity and start attracting new customers
The second grant states: This money, once paid, will be used to attract new customers with greater choice of services, and increasing their property and assets to deliver as well as increase efficiency and effectiveness in the operations of program.
Curiously, the first report that the firm filed with Recovery.org stated that it had only completed 50 percent of its promise to create jobs. It also reported that it was uncertain how many jobs ultimately would be added, but that it anticipated about 14. At another point in the report, it indicated that none had actually been created.
The companys profile states that We expect the loans to be repaid within 4 years though their overall loan time frames vary from 5 to 6 years with the first year being interest and payment free. The loans are designed to get businesses and individuals the financing they need to increase their business profitability and strategy so that they can recover and increase their ability to survive and strengthen their going concern.
Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, in Washington, D.C., says they dont have more information about The Emperor.
According to Sunbiz.org, the firm was established on Aug. 30, 2007, as a nonprofit organization with the purpose of supporting educational and charitable programs of art for children in grades K-12 in northern Florida through charitable donations to support this purpose.
That same year the company was dissolved, and in 2009 again reinstituted with an amendment to include educational and charitable purposes to small companies.
Records also indicate that the state exemption of this organization was automatically revoked by the IRS when it failed to file forms 990, 990-EZ, 990-N, or 990-PF for three consecutive years.
Contact Marianela Toledo at Marianela.Toledo@FloridaWatchdog.org