Update: ATLRC has released a list of their expenses following the publication of this article via Facebook. They have also updated their website and include PDFs invoices of their spending.
Last week, Julian Modugno ignited a small firestorm here at WUSSY with his opinion piece attacking the Atlanta Rainbow Crosswalks (ATLRC) initiative and its crowdfunding totals. Much of his ire was directed at the gross total (which currently stands at $44,951) raised for an allegedly permanent arts project, money which he felt would be better served for an organization such as Lost N Found Youth. In the fallout from that piece, we looked into claims made by Robert Sepulveda, Jr., the initiative’s figurehead, on the city of Atlanta’s decision to deny permanent status to the crosswalks in the weeks leading up to their installation. We found reason to doubt his claims that the city was anything but supportive of his process. He failed to clear the project through all proper bureaucratic channels before starting his crowdsourcing and PR campaigns.
Sepulveda cuts an imposing figure; an interior designer by trade, his beard is peppered and full, rippling pectorals, and any author writing up his ATLRC initiative would relish the opportunity to photograph him standing in front of a color wheel or the crosswalks themselves, preferably topless.
On July 30, he gave an interview with the GA Voice stating that his initiative was “one meeting away with the. . . Urban Design Commission (UDC) to be completely approved!” He goes on to suggest that the “city wants this to be a PERMANENT part of the city’s art collection.” The Voice followed up with an article on August 13, citing Sepulveda’s receipt of permission from the UDC on Wednesday, August 12. The Voice article makes no mention of whether the crosswalks would be permanent or temporary, though the author promoted the GoFundMe page for crowdsourcing the project, giving Sepulveda a valuable platform for fundraising. From the time of that article’s publication, the GoFundMe page has raised $28,825 in direct donations, with the remaining $16,126 channeled through donations to Georgia Equality. (We do not have access to the donor list, amount donated, or the date of donation for Georgia Equality’s donations.) Presumably, much of this money went towards supporting a permanent public arts project, assured by Sepulveda himself.
Sepulveda had not, however, gotten his initiative “completely approved.” Public records pulled from the office of Atlanta City Council indicate that while Sepulveda had gained approval of the project from the Office of Cultural Affairs and the Neighborhood Planning Unit – District 6 (NPU-e) on June 2, his initiative was not even on the docket of the city council until September 8. It was adopted and approved on September 21 by Councilman Kwanza Hall. At this point, though, Sepulveda had already received news that his project would not be approved for permanent installation. That came less than a month earlier, via the Department of Public Works (DPW).
In an email dated Thursday, September 3, Sepulveda reached out to Hall, and received a reply from Jay Tribby, Councilman Hall’s openly gay Chief of Staff. In this email, Sepulveda states that:
“after over a year of dealing with city bureaucracy. . . the Department of Public Works has decided not to issue a permanent public art permit after we received word they would allow it” (emphasis ours).”
These emails reveal a desperate tone: “The City had all this information over a year ago and now they till [sic] us, this just isn’t fair. . . Paint has already been ordered, fund [sic] collected, this is all a mess now.”
After reaching out to Councilman Hall, Robert spoke to the press. On September 17, Project Q and the Voice both reported that the City of Atlanta had rescinded approval for the permanent installation of the crosswalks. Based on a press release from ATLRC and an email provided by Sepulveda between himself and the DPW, these articles suggested that the city reversed course on the crosswalks after they had been completely approved. In short, the DPW’s decision to not issue permanent status was framed as controversial, and provided excellent PR material for Sepulveda’s initiative. But what appeared at the time to be a walk-back by the city of Atlanta on a project which would greatly contribute to queer representation in the Southeast was instead a failure on behalf of Sepulveda to clear all the appropriate channels of approval before promoting his crowdfunding and PR campaigns. All conveniently the day before the ATLRC's Donor Party, hosted at a private residence, where a $44,611 GoFundMe check was handed to Sepulveda.
Going back to that September 3 email, what constitutes the city of Atlanta’s guarantee of permanent status is unclear. He mentions in a previous email from July 28 that he worked closely with Robin Shahar, Mayor Kasim Reed’s advisor on LGBT Issues; Camille Love, executive director of the Office of Cultural Affairs; and Eddie Granderson, program manager of public art in the Office of Cultural Affairs. We can’t verify what any of these individuals may have guaranteed him about the projects status, especially with regard to the DPW; however, it is clear that the decision of the DPW was its own to make. He states that the DPW cited safety requirements in their decision not to issue the permit. The Urban Design Commission belongs under the Department of Planning and Community Development, and not under the DPW. If the DPW is responsible for ensuring permanent status of public art, why would Sepulveda have assumed that a commission from a different department could make that assurance? Despite what he may have heard from key officials in city government, why would he tell the press that the UDC’s decision was final?
We spoke with Sarah Arnason, a board member and former financial steward at Living Walls, Atlanta’s most well-known public arts initiative, about the city’s process of approval for public arts. To gain approval for a project such as Sepulveda’s, an organization would have to navigate several channels. Arnason stated that:
“DOT (Dept. of Transportation), the Office of Cultural Affairs, city council—all of city council, has to pass a motion that this was approved. There are about three steps. Usually you need a couple of months [to complete this process].”
Arnason confirmed that city council makes a distinction between permanent and temporary art.
Further research revealed that the email Sepulveda sent to Project Q was actually a product of last minute negotiations between Sepulveda and the office of City Council Member Kwanza Hall.
In short, while Sepulveda raised money for the crosswalk initiative between the months of July and September, his claim of having permanent approval was false which is somewhat forgivable considering he was actively—albeit in the most ham-fisted manner—seeking it.
While this means that Sepulveda raised the money through GoFundMe, a majority of his over $40,000, under a false representation of the facts, it hardly makes him an outright white-collar criminal—though some would dispute this. However, it does make him a poor choice to lead any community-based effort in any cultural sector, not just queer Atlanta.
Digging deeper into Sepulveda’s foundation, WUSSY contacted Karen Wilbanks, executive director and trustee of the Robert and Polly Dunn Foundation, a major philanthropic organization founded in 1986 that has exclusively serviced the Atlanta metro area focusing on child welfare, education, and health and human services.
“To be a good steward of money, you need accountability,” said Wilbanks, speaking of Sepulveda’s lack of transparency throughout his fundraising process.
When Wilbanks began to make inquiries on behalf of the foundation, following the September 17th announcement, Sepulveda rebuffed her. As one of the largest donors to the project, her foundation was legally entitled to all documents Wilbanks requested. Concerned with the lack of oversight and Sepulveda's unusually aggressive demeanor, Wilbanks requested a refund but was essentially given the run around, at one point even being told by Sepulveda that he "legally wasn't required" to issue one. All donations made to the ATLRC campaign were made under the notion that they would be tax deductible once the foundation gained 501(c)(3) tax exempt status. We are told that while Sepulveda registered as a non-profit in the state of Georgia, it currently appears he has not applied for tax exempt status with the IRS—this information can be viewed on the IRS’s website. ATLRC claims the organization is still in the process of applying for 501(c)(3) status.
Sepulveda misled his donors about the project’s actual status, and somehow managed to ignite a local media firestorm that painted the City Council as unwelcoming and intolerant. Meanwhile, he rose as a beacon of progress in upwardly mobile gay Atlanta. Now the crosswalks are laid and his donors claim they were installed for about “1/10 of the money raised”. Sepulveda informed his donors that all of the donations exceeding the $5,000 it cost to lay the first temporary crosswalks are being held in a trust for which there is no committee or board oversight. Further, Sepulveda refuses to release expense reports to the crosswalk donors. There is a lot to find unsettling here: the opaqueness of Sepulveda’s financial dealings; ATLRC’s lack of due diligence; the misrepresentation of the project’s status; Sepulveda falsely accusing the city of Atlanta of road-blocking the project; misrepresentation of the emails from Hall’s office to back up that claim. This all paints a brilliantly scathing social portrait of what one can accomplish when they have a nice suit and a gym membership.
So celebrate, for we will have all spent our days in disagreement over the importance of one man’s mishandled public arts initiative, one that will likely have been painted over by the time you’ve read this. Fuck these rainbow crosswalks.
We reached out to Sepulveda for comment, and as of the time of posting, have not received a reply. Sepulveda and his organization are currently promoting a change.org petition to make the crosswalks permanent.