BOSTON (CBS) – A Boston nonprofit that provides after-school programs for low-income kids says an interior designer took their money, but never delivered.
When the organization contacted WBZ-TV to help recover the funds, an I-Team investigation uncovered similar stories around the country. The I-Team eventually tracked down the well-known, self-described “million dollar decorator” to get answers about all of the missing money.
Nonprofit pays designer for lights, never receives them
Candice Gartley is the executive director of All Dorchester Sports League (ADSL), a nonprofit that offers afterschool programs to low-income kids.
In 2014, she met James Swan through a networking event in Boston. The designer offered to do some pro-bono consulting work to determine the best place to install security lighting on the outside of the organization’s building. Swan also offered to purchase the light fixtures through his wholesale connections, to save on the cost.
“He’s absolutely charming. He’s very articulate and puts you at ease,” Gartley recalled.
ADSL received a grant for the project and provided Swan with a check for $13,500. Months went by and there were still no lights; only a lot of excuses and delays from Swan.
“I never imagined the lights would never materialize,” Gartley said. “The overriding feeling I had was that no one would do this to a nonprofit youth organization. It just couldn’t be possible.”
The executive director said the organization operates on the thinnest of financial margins. According to Gartley, the funds were enough to run an entire program with a staff member for a year. The organization had to borrow money to pay salaries and utility bills to continue to operate.
ADSL eventually sued Swan to recoup the money, winning a judgment for more than double the amount, including damages. Gartley said the organization was willing to take the original owed amount of $13,500 and move on. Swan paid half of that and then stopped responding to any correspondence.
Designer promises to pay debt, fails to deliver
Unwilling to give up, Gartley decided to contact the I-Team.
“It really bothers me because it affects the kids and families that I serve here,” she expressed.
When the I-Team started investigating, it was not difficult to find the designer’s presence online. He is extremely active on social media and also produces a podcast called, “Million Dollar Decorating.” According to the online biography on his web site, he has also been featured in newspapers and wrote a book called, “101 Things I Hate About Your House.”
Swan quickly responded to the I-Team’s inquiry.
“Yes, this amount is due,” he wrote. “After a long period of financial struggle, the payment of this debt is possible. I look forward to reaching out to their legal counsel to arrange payment.”
Swan later promised the payment would be made at the beginning of April.
“The check is scheduled to be cut and signed this week,” he told the I-Team.
However, that deadline passed without any payment. In subsequent emails, Swan insisted he still intended to pay back ADSL, but then he simply stopped responding to the I-Team.
Newton family loses hundreds of thousands of dollars
A deeper dive into Swan’s background revealed a stunning pattern of similar behavior.
The I-Team found a 2004 civil lawsuit in Middlesex Superior Court where a Newton couple sued the interior designer for hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.
“It certainly brought up an old wound,” said attorney Peter Brooks, who represented the couple. “This was a conscious misappropriation of funds and then the deceit that followed to hide that.”
Brooks said his clients hired Swan to decorate their newly-constructed home in Chestnut Hill. However, he said it eventually became apparent the designer was collecting money for furnishings, but never making the purchases. Items that were supposed to be stored in a warehouse were nowhere to be found, or vendors reported that an order was never placed.
The couple sued and a judge ordered Swan to set aside $300,000 in anticipation of a possible judgment. However, when the judge awarded more than $211,000, the money was not there.
Brooks said his clients chased Swan for years trying to collect. The interior designer eventually declared bankruptcy in 2009. A judge allowed the Newton debt to be wiped away.
“This was devastating to my clients. I think it probably eats at them every day,” Brooks said.
I-Team finds other cases across the country
While searching court documents, the I-Team discovered other victims all over the country, including a Denver family owed $150,000 and a Lynn, Mass. couple who won a judgment for $14,150.
“I was angry, hurt and outraged,” said Daniel Erickson, who hired Swan as an interior designer at his Los Angeles home.
Erickson paid Swan almost $90,000 for furnishings. When the items failed to show up at the house, Erickson said that Swan simply disappeared.
He eventually took the designer to court, winning a judgment for more than $151,000 in damages. Erickson even hired a private investigator to track down any assets that could be collected toward the civil judgment, without any luck. The California homeowner had to essentially pay for the same furniture twice.
“Any light that can be shed on him in terms of bringing this to justice is a good thing,” Erickson told the I-Team.
I-Team tracks down designer to get answers
What frustrates people like Gartley, the nonprofit director, is that Swan seems to be hiding in plain sight.
The designer aggressively promotes his “Million Dollar Decorating” podcast and frequently posts about his travels to various trade shows, where he often participates as a speaker at the event. A review of his Facebook posts show recent trips to Dallas, Las Vegas, Chicago, and Paris.
“Seems like he’s living the life,” Gartley said.
However, on his way to a conference in California, Swan shared a photo of his boarding pass. The I-Team looked up the return flight information through the “record locator” and was waiting for the designer when he touched down at the airport in Portland, Maine.
The I-Team approached Swan in the terminal and asked why he never paid back the nonprofit, like he had promised in April.
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” Swan replied.
The I-Team then brought up the other cases in Massachusetts, Colorado and California. The designer silently walked through the airport, refusing to answer any questions as he made his way to the parking garage. He eventually got into a Land Rover and drove away.
The next morning, Swan wrote an email to the I-Team, saying he still plans to pay ADSL the money.
“I acknowledge the debt which is owed the Dorchester Sports League and deeply regret the mistakes which resulted in this debt,” he wrote.
Swan also referenced his bankruptcy in 2009 and said he followed all the legal steps in the process. He failed to mention the more recent judgments the I-Team discovered.
“What is not true is that there was any wrongdoing on my part as it relates to my former clients, projects, etc.,” Swan wrote. “To accuse, state or infer that there was wrongdoing is false.”
That exchange happened in late August. At the Dorchester nonprofit, Gartley said she is still waiting for the check to arrive.
“I’m just mystified about how he’s been able to continue acting this way,” she said. “It’s beyond my comprehension.”
Ryan Kath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.