Lynne Hohman saw the story on News 3 this spring about the new nonprofit offering free pet food to people on food stamps and immediately went to her computer for more information. It was called Pet Food Stamps and promised help to people on public assistance since they are legally prohibited from buying pet food with government aid.
“It’s been a bad year, it's been a really bad year," she said in an interview in her Janesville home, her three dogs, Riley, Sawyer and Maggie at her feet. "My husband's self-employed and he can't work right now (due to cancer). Everything's just been up in the air. We get by as best as we can and this program was going to be a big help."
Hohman sent in a copy of her driver's license and government food stamp acceptance letter and waited. She emailed Pet Food Stamps and called, but has not heard back.
"The help we were hoping for at the time just unfortunately didn't come," she said. "I just got kind of worried that my identity had been stolen, so I contacted you guys."
Hohman is not the only one to have problems with Pet Food Stamps. After the nonprofit was featured on hundreds of television stations, including national broadcasts on Fox News, CNN, CBS and ABC, interest in its services exploded and questions were raised as to whether anyone received what the nonprofit promises.
Melissa Grace, a spokesperson for the New York Attorney General’s Office, said numerous consumer complaints have been filed with her office and an investigation is underway.
From his home office in New York, Marc Okon, Pet Food Stamps’ founder, steadfastly denied any impropriety. He said the non-profit has only raised $65,000, which is not nearly enough to cover the roughly 175,000-225,000 people who have applied.
"I relate and sympathize with all of the applicants who need help," he said. "(Pet Food Stamps) was set up to help people and we are doing our best to do that."
Okon said he has 15,000 voicemails and nearly 100,000 emails from applicants that have not been returned, and he does not have the financial ability to hire staff to expedite that process. He also said he had been working out of donated office space, but lost that at the end of summer.
He said the mass email program he used to contact applicants failed, with only about 40 percent of the notes being opened. His message to applicants who applied online or in person is that their personal information remains safe.
"The information on the website is highly secure and encrypted. We paid and got the highest level of protection that there is,” he said. "All of the mailed-in applications we received are under lock and key, stored safely. It's never been shared with anybody, so the fear of having one's identity stolen is completely baseless but understandable why somebody would say that."
Okon's Pet Food Stamps Facebook page is filled with angry responses from people who were hoping for help. They have criticized the lack of communication and doubted whether any pet food had ever been sent to consumers.
At News3's request, Okon turned in a list of pet food recipients over a two-week period in October. News3 contacted more than a dozen pet owners on that list from around the country who said they had applied months ago and issued multiple complaints via voicemails and personal email to Okon before they received their food.
However, when the owner of PetFlow.com, the company filling the food orders for Pet Food Stamps, was interviewed at the beginning of last month, he had not "filled an order for (Pet Food Stamps) in a few months."
"I've spoken to Marc Okon on several occasions," Alex Zhardanovsky said in an email to News3. "I think he bit off a lot more than he can chew, and is trying hard to figure out how to make things work. He was expecting to be fulfilling a lot more orders than he has but I'm still hopeful he will get things moving. It's obviously beyond our control as we are simply fulfilling orders for them, and there have been some, although not thousands as expected."
Okon disputed Zhardanovsky's notion that that he had not filled orders, but conceded with his supplier's description of him as "overwhelmed."
"I am overworked, I will say that, but over my head, I'd say no," said Okon, who stressed he has worked 80 hours a week since February to make the nonprofit work better.
"I personally have contacted through letters, emails and phone calls literally hundreds of people and organizations looking for funding," he said. "When you consider that the charity has only been around for less than three quarters, have approximately 200,000 applications and have received $65,000 in funding, calling somebody a scam for not getting your free food quickly enough just seems a little bit irrational to me.
"The organization should be given at least a year to get things in order and most likely more because all of the charity watchdog sites specifically say it takes charities years to get off the ground,” Okon said.
The nonprofit's bylaws call for monthly operating reports to be given to its directors, a group comprised of Okon and two of his neighbors. He refused to turn those over to News3, saying he would file all the paperwork he is legally required to file at the appropriate time.
"If you called up the Red Cross or the ASPCA or any non-profit and ask them for current monthly operating expenses, they'll say, ‘If you want our operating expenses, look at last year's returns and if you want this year's, wait until we file and you'll get them next year,’" he said. "That's pretty much my answer. All of the information, every dollar that came in and every dollar that went out and all of the specific minutiae will be released after our first full year of operations."
While Pet Food Stamps is legally incorporated as a nonprofit in New York, Okon acknowledged he has not registered to raise money in states like Wisconsin, which require nonprofit organizations to do so if they intend to raise more than $5,000.
Okon said, in time, he fully expects Pet Food Stamps to become a fixture among animal lovers around the country.
"The fact that this program was started and got the response that it has, shows the incredible need for this program, and a charity can't be faulted because so many people need its services and the funding isn't there to satisfy everybody immediately," he said. "I truly, truly feel and expect, I won't say hope, I expect that this charity, Pet Food Stamps, will grow to be as important to the animal community and to people as the ASPCA and the Humane Society and others. That's the track I take."