Big Scam On Campus
Local job-training course raises questions--and alarms
In March, Howard Floyd, 51, got a strange call. It was from a woman who had a lead on a job for him. She told him she represented a man who owned a company that was looking for new trainees. The man running the company wanted to see Floyd, the woman told him, because he had a good reputation in his community. Training classes had already started, and all trainees would be paid for their time.
"She told me, 'We heard you were a good advocate and resource,'" Floyd recalls. "I said, 'Do you know me?' She said, 'I know your mother.' I said 'Where you located?' She said, 'We up on Coppin State campus, up on North Avenue.'"
Floyd says the promise of $10 an hour to train sounded appealing, so he reported that week. When he arrived, he says, he learned that he and the other people in the room (he estimates that there were around 25 other trainees there) would work for a company called Phoenix Consulting Group, run by a man named Jamal Edmonds.
According to an information sheet Floyd was given on his first day of training, Phoenix had partnered with "various charities in Baltimore and surrounding counties," and the trainees would learn to solicit donations from the public on their behalf. "We believe that every organization is an important one, and that's why we pick only the best consultants to go out and advocate for these specific organizations," the sheet reads. "Each charitable donation is tax deductible and we accept clothing, toys, food, educational and cash donations." The sheet lists charities Phoenix says it partners with, including local organizations Health Care for the Homeless and House of Ruth as well as national organizations Hope for Haiti and the March of Dimes.
Floyd says the class was also told that Phoenix was starting something called Youth Empowerment Services, aka the Y.E.S. Program, which would operate out of a building at 208 S. Pulaski St. The Y.E.S. Program, Edmonds told the trainees, would offer daycare services, a GED program, after-school programs, and more.
Floyd says that he was excited about being involved with Phoenix; it was offering people, many of whom were struggling to get by and some of whom had recently gotten out of jail, a chance not just to make money, but to be part of something that gave back to the community.
During daily training sessions, Edmonds talked about the importance of looking and acting professional, had the trainees play team-oriented games, and asked them to perform skits in which they pretended to collect money for Phoenix. Floyd says the classes seemed a little strange to him, but he says the number of participants and the fact that the classes were held on the campus of a well-known local college gave it the air of legitimacy.
But shortly after he started coming to class, Edmonds made a request that alarmed Floyd: Phoenix and the Y.E.S. Program wanted to do something nice for kids for Easter, and he asked all of the trainees to pitch in with donations for the effort. Some people collected donations on the street or from friends and family, Floyd says; others contributed money from their own pockets. In early April, Edmonds had another request: The class was told that the Y.E.S. Program was getting ready to launch and wanted to hold a grand opening party for the community--again, trainees were expected to help out.
"He said, 'I want all of y'all to come to work Monday with $40. If you don't have $40, don't come to work,'" Floyd says. "So I'm like, 'What do you mean, don't come to work?' He said 'If you don't have the $40, you don't know how to ask people to give money to charity.'"
It was then, Floyd says, that he decided to trust his instincts: "I told my mother, 'I'm not going to give him my $40, something is not right. I knew a couple people [from the class], and called them and asked, 'Did you all get paid yet?'" He himself had not.
One person told him they'd asked Edmonds about pay and was told that her first check had been processed and would arrive in the mail shortly. Another told Floyd that Edmonds had said "the money got mixed up in the bank," but the problem would be straightened out soon.
Floyd says he then went to visit the Pulaski Street location where the Y.E.S. Program was supposed to operate. He found a locked door and a sign directing people to a leasing office. Floyd then returned to Coppin to ask Edmonds what was going on. But Edmonds wasn't there, and no one in the adjacent classrooms knew anything about him--in fact, for a few days, no one had seen him at all.
"One lady in the office across the way says, 'Oh, that's why I haven't seen him around lately.'" Floyd says. "She told me she thought we were out in the field."
Floyd says he called the number listed on the information sheet he received, but "nobody ever called me back." City Paper's attempts to reach Edmonds through the number over the course of two weeks were unsuccessful.
According to another trainee who took the class, who asked that she not be identified by name, Edmonds had been recruiting participants and holding classes for weeks before Floyd got involved. She says that, as with Floyd, someone had called to invite her to participate in a job-training opportunity. This one met beginning on March 1 downtown. When she reported for work, she filled out an application and gave Edmonds copies of her ID and Social Security card. Edmonds said he was running a job training and self-improvement program, and told people that although they would get paid, they shouldn't be in it "for the money." She says that he promised $10 an hour, but "none of us--nobody--ever received a check."
But people did put money into the program. "Me, personally, I put in $87.77," the woman says. "When I asked him for my money back [at the end], he told me he would send it in the mail with my check. A lot of people donated money--altogether he probably collected about $500 from us."
Shortly after classes began, Edmonds moved the class from its Lombard Street location to a new spot in Hunt Valley; then he moved it again to Coppin. According to those involved in the program, Edmonds told trainees to spread the word to bring others on board.
Now, she, Floyd, and others who took the classes are worried because Edmonds has all but disappeared--he still occasionally calls or texts some class members from a blocked number, they say--and he has their personal information, as well as private details he may have gleaned from them about their lives during the alleged self-improvement activities.
"He had us fill out applications, he took copies of our state IDs and our Social Security cards," the woman says. "He even had pictures of some of us because he had us do an exercise where we had to do an obituary, and some of us put our picture on our obituaries."
City Paper called Health Care for the Homeless and House of Ruth to ask if they had heard of Edmonds or Phoenix Consulting, and whether they worked with outside companies that went door-to-door to raise funds. Neither were familiar with him. "We make a practice, just in general, of not soliciting resources in that manner," Health Care for the Homeless spokesperson Kevin Lindamood says. Likewise, House of Ruth spokesperson Kerrie Wojciechowski was alarmed to hear that her organization's name was listed as a partner in Edmonds' program.
A search of the Maryland Judiciary database turns up multiple criminal and civil cases filed for a man named Jamal Devan Edmonds. Calls to the number listed in court documents for those cases were not answered.
According to documents obtained from Coppin State University, a Jamal Edmonds who listed his address as 300 E. Pratt St. rented the Tawes Executive Conference Room on campus from March 15 through April 17 to do "life coach training, financial management, time management, personality makeover for women between the ages of 20-26. No selling involved." Edmonds paid $1,500 for the room.
According to a statement Coppin sent in response to questions about Edmonds, Coppin says the school's facilities are open to the community and it followed its normal procedures for working with Edmonds.
"We do not perform background checks on organizations or individuals," the statement says. "Mr. Jamal Edmonds' application met the requirements for a license agreement. By the time we were notified of the alleged scam, his license term had expired."
University spokeswoman Shernay Williams says it was Floyd who alerted Coppin to the problem initially. The school has not filed charges against Edmonds, and it has not investigated the situation further, though it has written him a letter addressing the allegations and informing him that he will no longer be permitted to rent space from Coppin.
Many of Edmonds' former students, however, say they're concerned he'll do this again. None have filed charges against him, though five have called City Paper to share their experiences. Julius Johnson, for instance.
"When I first heard about the program, it sounded like something really worthwhile," he says. "I had just come home from being incarcerated, so it was something I could look forward to being involved in, to better myself. We was donating money out of our pockets, money we didn't really have, because we thought it was going to a worthwhile cause. . . . but now I really feel used. I wasted my time. You know, it was a big waste of time."
* Correction: Due to an editing error, the photo caption for this story initially misidentified Howard Floyd as Harold.
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