Edgartown woman and her Texas PR firm spawn lawsuits

Lynn Christoffers

Scott and Danielle Pendergraft and their three children arrived in Edgartown in 2008 and moved into a $4 million house on South Water Street. The couple wasted little time becoming a part of the town’s nonprofit establishment.

Danielle Pendergraft presented herself as a director of Holiday Public Relations & Events, one of Houston’s largest public relations firms. She began work for the Edgartown Library Foundation, then planning for a new town library. It appeared to be a natural fit.

The couple entered Edgartown’s social scene and made friends among its wealthier year-round and summer residents.

What few if any of her new friends and associates knew at the time is that Ms. Pendergraft is a convicted felon, who in 1996 agreed to plead guilty to bank fraud, wire fraud, and social security fraud in Texas, according to court records and conversation with residents.

Four years later, Danielle Pendergraft has clashed personally and legally with many of the people who once considered her a friend and associate in nonprofit and business ventures that include a proposed West Tisbury winery.

The couple is also the subject of an active fraud investigation by Edgartown Police, according to police.

In December 2011, following a library fundraising campaign, Holiday Public Relations & Events sued the Edgartown Library Foundation, alleging the foundation illegally used her trademarked phrase “Frankly, we love our library.”

Ms. Pendergraft and the foundation recently settled that lawsuit out of court. Edgartown Library Foundation president Susan Cahoon declined to reveal the amount of the settlement, but stressed that the financial payment did not come from donations. It was covered by the foundation’s insurer.

On May 12, Ms. Pendergraft’s company, Holiday Public Relations & Events, filed suit in a Harris County, Texas court against Edgartown residents SQuire Rushnell and Louise DuArt, husband and wife, who founded Network of Neighbors, a web-based charity intended to match people who need help with neighbors who want to do good deeds.

The lawsuit alleges that the couple failed to pay Holiday for public relations work.

Ms. Pendergraft and her husband have also been actively seeking investors to develop a vineyard and winery project in West Tisbury. Island architect Patrick Ahern and surveyor Doug Hoehn, both cited in promotional material for the project, claim that the Pendergrafts have misrepresented and overstated their respective involvement.

Ms. Pendergraft did not respond to messages left at numbers in Edgartown, Boston, and Houston, listed as offices for her public relations firm. Nor did she respond to an email.

New lawsuit

In spring 2011, Mr. Rushnell, an author and former network television executive, and Ms. DuArt, a comedian and author, founded the nonprofit Network of Neighbors.

Danielle and Scott Pendergraft joined the board of directors. Mr. Pendergraft was named treasurer, with authority to withdraw funds.

Mr. Rushnell and Ms. DuArt said that they donated $32,000 to Network of Neighbors. Newman’s Own Foundation, the charity formed by the late Paul Newman, donated $10,000 for the creation of a website. Others, including some who attended charity events organized by Ms. Pendergraft, donated small amounts.

In a conversation with The Times, Mr. Rushnell said that Ms. Pendergraft and her husband transferred more than 80 percent of the donations to Network of Neighbors into the accounts of Ms. Pendergraft’s public relations firm. He said the Pendergrafts failed to pay other vendors who contracted for services and that they charged high fees for her public relations and events work, based on a bogus contract.

Big chunk

On Wednesday, Kathleen Forsythe, owner of Forsythe Design in Tisbury, appeared in small claims court in Edgartown District Court seeking a judgement for $7,000 against Holiday.

In a telephone conversation with The Times Wednesday before her court appointment, Ms. Forsythe said Ms. Pendergraft called her around Thanksgiving 2011 and hired her to create a website for Network of Neighbors and have it completed before the Christmas holiday. Ms. Forsythe said she agreed to do the work on short notice and without a retainer because she thought it was for a good Island cause.

Ms. Forsythe said Ms. Pendergraft told her the Newman contribution was earmarked for that purpose. Ms. Forsythe said she and a Boston programmer, also hired to work on the website, were never paid.

Ms. Forsythe said she is owed $7,500 but decided to file a small claim, maximum $7,000, to keep her legal expenses to a minimum.

“Not being paid that $7,500 is a big chunk for a small business,” she said. “The $7,000 is better than nothing, so I decided to go for that.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Ms. Forsythe and Ms. Pendergraft, the latter accompanied by Boston lawyer Kristen Schuler Scammon, appeared before District Court clerk/magistrate Liza Williamson.

Ms. Forsythe told the court she completed the project, but more than five months later is still seeking payment.

“She boasts of having an eight million dollar company,” Ms. Forsythe said.

Ms. Pendergraft made no statement to the court. Ms. Scammon said her client is not liable, but rather the company, Holiday, is.

“She is not an officer, she is not a director, she is an employee,” Ms. Scammon said.

Ms. Scammon said the company is owned by a trust, and Ms. Forsythe should take her claim up with the company, not her client.

The Holiday lawsuit against Mr. Rushnell said the vendors have not been paid because Mr. Rushnell and Ms. DuArt have not paid Holiday. The Holiday lawsuit asks the court for an award of $43,073, plus attorneys fees and expenses.

The Network of Neighbors website is now defunct, and the charity’s work is on hold.

“We have nothing to show for it,” Mr. Rushnell said. “We don’t even have a website. Network of Neighbors was supposed to be a nonprofit where neighbor helped neighbor. Unfortunately, the Pendergrafts saw that as like being a kid in a candy store, taking it over for their benefit.”

Mr. Rushnell told The Times that he is considering filing a civil lawsuit against Ms. Pendergraft and Holiday, a firm he said exists only as a rented mailbox in a Houston strip mall.

Mr. Rushnell provided The Times with photos he took on a trip this month. The photos show that the physical address that appears on Holiday promotional material is a storefront mailbox rental business.

Board of directors

Mr. Rushnell said that he and Ms. DuArt resigned from the Network of Neighbors board this spring, after learning that the charity’s accounts were nearly empty and that the money had gone to Ms. Pendergraft’s firm.

In a sharply worded letter, the remaining board members demanded the resignation of the Pendergrafts, telling them that if they did not resign they would be voted off.

The board letter cites Ms. Pendergraft’s failure to disclose a conviction in U.S. District court for bank fraud, wire fraud, and Social Security fraud, for which she served time in prison.

“Serving on the board of a nonprofit organization requires the establishment of a trust with its donors,” the board wrote in a letter to the Pendergrafts, dated May 16. “The failure of Danielle Pendergraft, aka, Danielle Pauline Ravitch, to disclose her prior federal prison record for fraud and misuse of Social Security numbers is inconsistent with the levels of trust expected of a nonprofit board member.”

Financial crime

Ms. Pendergraft has a criminal record involving financial crimes, according to court documents and prison officials.

In 1996, when she lived in Houston, Texas, Ms. Pendergraft pleaded guilty to nine federal charges in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, as part of a plea agreement.

The charges included bank fraud, wire fraud, use of another person’s Social Security number, filing a false Social Security number application, and use of a false Social Security number.

Judge Melinda Harmon sentenced Ms. Pendergraft to two years and nine months in federal prison, a term longer than the standard federal sentencing guidelines suggest. The judge also ordered Ms. Pendergraft to make restitution totaling $76,309 to three banks and an individual. The court ordered a three-year term of supervised release, which is similar to probation, after her prison term was complete.

“Pattern of deception”

After voluntarily pleading guilty, Ms. Pendergraft, then known as Danielle Pauline Ravitch, was released on $10,000 bond to await sentencing. Her actions while free on bond led the judge to impose an “upward departure” from the sentencing guidelines, according to court records. Ms. Pendergraft appealed the stiffer sentence.

“Prior to sentencing, Ravitch was released on bond, on the condition that she refrain from incurring additional credit without the prior approval of her pretrial services advisor,” the appeals court judges wrote in November, 1997, affirming the conviction and the stiffer sentence. “In direct contravention of this agreement, Ravitch purchased a Mercedes-Benz, leaving the dealership a check for the purchase price, but requesting that it hold the check until she was able to pay the full amount out of a nonexistent trust fund. In an attempt to pay the dealership, Ravitch then borrowed $29,000 from a friend under the pretense of needing money to pay her divorce expenses. As a result of this activity, the district court revoked Ravitch’s bond and ordered her detained pending sentencing.”

Ongoing investigation

Edgartown police and the Cape & Islands District Attorney’s office have investigated the Pendergrafts’ actions for more than a month. To date, police have not applied for a criminal complaint. They say they have not found evidence of a crime in the transfer of funds from the charity, most of which were donated by Mr. Rushnell and Ms. DuArt.

“It was a good concept, they just got involved in the wrong people,” said Edgartown Police Sgt. Ken Johnson. “All the money that came in, at least $51,000, went to the Pendergrafts. They don’t even have a website to show for it. They’ve got all kinds of invoices that said they did stuff. Civilly, they’re going to have to answer some questions about what they did to earn this money, but it’s not criminal.”

The investigation remains open and active, Sgt. Johnson said. Police are now investigating whether a contract between Holiday Public Relations and Events, and Mr. Rushnell and Ms. DuArt was tampered with.

In her lawsuit, Ms. Pendergraft attached a contract with the Rushnell/DuArt signatures on an undated signature page as an exhibit. Mr. Rushnell and Ms. DuArt say they received a copy of the most recent contract, but never signed it.

Winery project

Ms. Pendergraft and her husband are actively promoting a vineyard and winery project on Olsen land off State Road in West Tisbury. The 45-acre property is listed for sale at $3.8 million, including a stone house, two barns, and large open pastures.

The project would include a new 5,500-square-foot home where the Pendergraft family would live.

In a document titled Martha’s Vineyard Winery Business Plan Concept & Feasibility Study Request, the Pendergrafts estimate their new winery will gross $4.2 million annually from the sale of 20,000 cases of wine.

The Feasibility Study Request lists several prominent Island professionals, as part of a “success team aka The Winery Dream Team.”

Architect Patrick Ahearn is among those listed as team members.

Mr. Ahearn said he walked the property with Ms. Pendergraft in January and, at her request, he sent a proposal for his architectural services.

“She asked me to submit a proposal,” Mr. Ahearn said. “I never heard a word from her again. Then I heard she put my name in some kind of collateral material. She never retained me for any of that. I asked for a retainer, she didn’t send it. She never asked my permission. I’m not very happy about it. She had no right to use my name. She never retained me to do anything.”

Doug Hoehn, also named as part of the “winery dream team” is a partner in the civil engineering and surveying firm Schofield, Barbini, & Hoehn in Vineyard Haven.

Mr. Hoehn said he had a very preliminary conversation with Ms. Pendergraft, but has not heard from her for several months. He said he was unaware he was listed as part of the “winery dream team.”

“I would not classify us as a backer, we’re not a backer,” Mr. Hoehn said. “The property she’s looking at is a property we’ve done work on before. I told her what we had done, and what we would need to do.”

This article was corrected to reflect that it was not Ms. Pendergraft as an individual who sued the Edgartown Library Foundation, but her firm, Holiday Public Relations & Events.