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Breast cancer charity’s abrupt end spurs call to investigate

 Y-Me National Breast Cancer Organizati21St Annual Race At Your Pace. Tamiko Arnett Chicago dances rumbmusic.  Arnett is breast

Y-Me, National Breast Cancer Organization, 21St Annual Race At Your Pace. Tamiko Arnett, Chicago, dances to rumba music. Arnett is a breast cancer survivor of eleven years. I Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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Updated: August 18, 2012 6:35AM

The sudden, unexplained shutdown last week of the Y-Me breast cancer support organization prompted a call by State Sen. Ira Silverstein (D-Chicago) for the state attorney general to investigate the charity. 

“Given the size of the organization, the number of people involved and the importance of their work, I think there should be some accountability,” Silverstein said.

The senator was among the more than 20,000 people who helped raise more than $2 million by participating in the Y-Me’s May 13 race and walk.

Last Thursday, the locally based nonprofit, which operated a nationwide hotline offering counseling to breast cancer patients, fired its staff and shut its doors.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office said it intended to open a “review” of the charity’s finances but stopped short of saying it had any evidence of impropriety or wrongdoing.

Sharon Green, Y-Me’s first executive director and a current board member, said she sees no reason for an investigation. 

“I don’t believe there was any wrongdoing,” she said. “It’s just an economic situation that they’ve been dealing with for some time, and it got to be very difficult to meet the monthly bills.”

Green would not go into specifics but said finances would be laid out in court when the group files for Chapter 7 bankruptcy later this week.

Public records, however, indicate a sharp decline in contributions over the past five years.

IRS forms filed by the charity show contributions plummeted from $16.7 million in 2007 to $5.2 million in 2010.

Former CEO Margaret Kirk was paid $231,000 in 2009, her last full year on the job. The next CEO was paid $120,000 for part of 2010, according to the forms. 

An audit released Monday by Attorney General Madigan’s office showed Y-Me’s investments carried a value of $803,204 as of June 30, 2011, down from $1.5 million a year earlier. This indicates either investment losses or that the money was used to pay expenses. 

Over the weekend Margaret Harte, a Y-Me volunteer and founder of the group’s signature fund-raising race, said “incompetence and mismanagement,” especially under previous leadership, led to Y-Me’s downfall.

Harte said Y-Me had overexpanded and leased office space it could not afford here and in other cities.

Green acknowledged that the organization had “liabilities from many, many years ago.” She added that the weak economy, lower than expected race receipts and short-term debt were other contributing factors to the closure.

Asked what happened to the funds raised by the recent race, Green said, “None of that money was wasted. That money was used to keep the hotline going as long as we could. Nobody bought cars or anything like that; it was used for important programs. It just couldn’t be sustained.”

Since its founding in the south suburbs in 1979, Y-Me has drawn support from thousands of women with breast cancer and their families and friends.

It also has attracted a bipartisan A-list of political supporters over the years, including then state Sen. Barack Obama, who donated $200 to purchase fund-raising tickets from Y-Me in 2001, state campaign records show.

Other backers included former Democratic state Comptroller Dan Hynes, who donated $1,600; former state Sen. James De Leo (D-Chicago), who gave $1,825; and former GOP Lt. Gov. Corinne Wood, a breast-cancer survivor who gave $500, state records show.

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