Furious donors for a Chinese Heritage Gate set to open Sept. 29 showed up this week at a West Valley City Council meeting to raise questions about where their money actually went after board members demanded a budget and ledgers for a year with no results.
During Tuesday's public comment period, community members and donors pleaded their case for investigating hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations overseen by Terence Chen, board chairman for the Chinese Heritage Foundation of Utah.
The 48-foot-long gate, which has been built with private money, is designed to recognize the friendship between sister cities West Valley City and Nantou, Taiwan. The completion date of September 2012 will mark the 12th anniversary of the cities' partnership. But critics are calling the friendship a politically charged project they didn't have a say in.
Chen rebuts those accusations.
Chen, a retired West Valley City police sergeant and native of Taiwan, says he has nothing to hide and those alleging wrongdoing are "self-serving people and back stabbers."
But those who are questioning Terence Chen believe he may be hiding something.
Ling-Ling Chen, no relation to Terence Chen, said she left her position as secretary of the foundation in early August after more than a year of unsuccessfully trying to get a list of donors or addresses from Terence Chen to send out invitations for a donor appreciation dinner.
"If I don't even have the names I can't move forward, I can't do anything to help," Ling-Ling Chen said Wednesday.
She decided to step down sooner rather than later to give someone else a chance to try to obtain a donor list before the appreciation dinner, scheduled for later this month. Ling-Ling Chen's husband, Jimmy Chen, also resigned from his position on the five-member foundation board on Tuesday because of frustrations with a lack of transparency and suspicions of improper financial management on the part of Terence Chen.
Meanwhile, Andrew So, owner of the China Town Project in South Salt Lake, told West Valley officials that his project a mall featuring Chinese shops and restaurants also questions Terence Chen's handling of the Chinese Heritage Gate. People have been confused on whether they are donating money to So's project or to Terence Chen's project, So said. He said Terence Chen hasn't been transparent with the public about the Chinese Heritage Gate.
So said Chinese community members disagreed with West Valley's location for the gate, the decision to place a Taiwanese flag on it, and the notion that the structure is a "friendship gate."
So said he "hopes the council will reconsider the project" and also begin an investigation into how the donations made to the decade-long project are being used.
But Terence Chen, who did not attend Tuesday's meeting, said he doesn't care about claims made against him.
"I am doing the best I know how," he said. "If they call for an audit, that is fine. There is nothing to hide."
West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder said the state would be better suited to investigate allegations of misuse of funds, rather than the city.
"Our hands are a little bit tied on the city level," Winder said, adding that it couldn't regulate a foundation.
Terence Chen said before Tuesday's meeting that the Chinese Heritage Foundation of Utah is not an official nonprofit organization but is in the process of becoming one. He said the board did not have a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization set up with the Internal Revenue Service so it was taking donations for the Chinese Heritage Gate in the way of checks to West Valley City that were then paid to Terence Chen.
In the past 10 years, $140,000 in donations have been collected, Terence Chen said. The treasurer on the board and the executive director of the Utah Cultural Celebration Center also have access to the names and donation amounts.
"We are still short [of money for the gate]," Terence Chen said, "but we are going to work things out."
Another Chinese community member, Utah Chinese Society past president Susy Huang, told the council there is also concern about where money donated from the sister city in Taiwan went.
"A huge check was made out to West Valley City," Huang said. "It wasn't made out to the Chinese Heritage Foundation."
Winder cut her off and asked for her contact information to discuss the concern later. He said he was bound by the rules of not letting the comment period go past 30 minutes, although several others still wanted to speak.
Winder told the crowd that the council could "sit down and go through the books with Mr. [Terence] Chen and see if things are on the up and up."
In 2003, a West Valley Sister City Committee was created with the IRS as a nonprofit organization with Terence Chen as the chairman of the committee and Winder as the creator of the organization. IRS nonprofit public records indicate the organization's exempt status was revoked for failing to file for three consecutive years.
The Chinese Heritage Gate is set to open Sept. 29. Terence Chen said phase one consists of erecting the gate, which he estimated costs about $170,000. In the future, more projects will add to the area, including a wall with donor names.
Community members are taking their concerns to the Utah Attorney General's Office and the Utah Division of Consumer Protection.
Twitter@CimCity The Chinese Heritage Friendship Gate time line:
2000: West Valley City and Nantou, Taiwan, sign a sister city agreement and talk about building a Chinese gate in West Valley City.
June 2003: The Utah Cultural Celebration Center opens and the area is named possible site for gate. West Valley Sister City Committee is also filed with the IRS as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that later went defunct after failing to file for three years in a row.
2002-2012: Members of the local Chinese community organize the Chinese Heritage Foundation of Utah in 2002, led by local community leader Terence Chen. More than $200,000 were raised with funds from donors in Utah and Taiwan.
2011: West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder mayor Zu Shuhua of Nantou, Taiwan both agree to finish the gate on the 12th anniversary of the sister city relationship.
July 2011: Ground broken on the Chinese Heritage Friendship Gate at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center at 1355 W. 3100 South.
June 2012: Construction begins on the foundations and plaza by ZPSCO Contractors, Inc.
July 2012: The Gate previously built in Taiwan was shipped to Utah.
August 2012: Re-construction of the gate in Utah by local company YAMAY General Contracting, Inc.
Sept. 10, 2012: Gate structure to be completed.
Sept. 29, 2012: Chinese Heritage Gate Celebration.
Source: Utah Cultural Celebration Center