CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- After receiving several waves of complaints over more than a year, the NewsChannel 36 I-Team has spent months digging through the financial records of a local non-profit – the Charlotte Zoo – and the for-profit professional fundraiser running a poker game to support the zoo.
Robert Mussen operates the for-profit poker game from the same office where he serves as president and chairman of the board of the Charlotte Zoo.
Mussen has spent years promoting the zoo as a tourist attraction and economic stimulant for Charlotte.
Mussen says he spent thousands of dollars of his own money to develop a master plan for the zoo. But from the beginning, Mussen raised money for the zoo through poker tournaments.
So which got more money – the zoo or the poker game? “Oh the poker game by far,” says Better Business Bureau President Tom Bartholomy. Bartholomy reviewed business records for both the for-profit professional solicitation company and the zoo at the I-Team’s request.
The records on file with the North Carolina Secretary of State Solicitation Licensing section show that the Charlotte Zoo raised a little over $19,000 last year while the poker game brought in well over $300,000.
“That’s not a sustainable contribution record that would sustain the zoo or would meet our standards for charitable giving,” said Bartholomy.
Mussen calls his poker games by the legal name “Charity Games, LLC,” a limited liability company.
He wrote the Secretary of State: “We hold Texas Hold ‘Em events and donate proceeds to local charities.” The zoo is most prominently mentioned but Mussen has said in telephone conversations that the poker games have produced donations for 22 local charities.
But the company called “Charity Games” is not itself a charity. It’s a for-profit business run by Mussen.
Bartholomy said, “In this case charity games and zoo are intertwined because of Mr. Mussen.”
Charity Games runs its Texas Hold ‘Em poker tournaments in an office park off Arrowood Road near Interstate 77. Mussen said by phone that the company holds games three to five nights a week. That came as a surprise to Tom Bartholomy at the BBB who said: “I'm sorry. I thought it was three times a month. It would appear to be a great deal of demand for what Mr. Mussen is offering.”
And the poker game is largely cash. An online promotion for Charity Games posted in April of last year offers a $5,000 grand prize for a $160 entry fee.
“This is all cash for cash and it would appear that the zoo is there to lend legitimacy to what they're doing,” said Bartholomy.
Mussen refused to speak to the I-Team on camera. But he told me by phone, “There's no story here, dude. I'm not embarrassed one bit that I'm running a poker game to raise money for charity. As long as I've been in business I've been straight up and honest."
But Mussen refuses to name the charities other than the zoo and to report how much each charity gains from the poker games.
And the people who run real zoos that are up and running have real doubts about whether Mussen could ever raise the kind of capital necessary to start a zoo.
“If we stared to build this place today with the purchase of the land you’re looking at $300 million,” said Dr. David Jones, who runs the North Carolina Zoo near Asheboro. That would take a string of casinos to fund – not a mere poker game.
That Mussen is raising money through a for-profit poker game and refusing to disclose exactly how much goes to which charities, Jones calls “very, very worrying.” Jones says he’s worked on 22 non-profit boards over the course of 42 years in the zoological field both in the U.S. and Great Britain and has chaired seven of those boards. “Whether you're raising money for the charity or running the charity, the expectation is that any aspect of the financials - total transparency, openness to public, absolutely essential. Otherwise there's always a question.”
And Mussen’s background also raises questions about his ability to pull off a major zoo. The website pokerpages.dom lists him as a poker player with the nickname “Shades.” He has an arrest record in Mecklenburg County for – among other things – two counts of misdemeanor assault on a female but both those charges were dismissed. In 2005 Mussen declared personal bankruptcy.
When asked if he had worked closely with Mussen, Dr. Jones replied, “No. We’ve had no contact with him at all.”
The Secretary of State’s office referred questions about Mussen’s poker games to the Deputy Director of the North Carolina Alcohol Law Enforcement Division, Allen Page, who told me by phone he could not comment on an ongoing investigation.
Mussen told me repeatedly by phone that he had nothing to hide. When I confronted him on camera outside his office to ask about the money produced by charity games, he hid his face.