Questions over credibility are being raised about San Diego's newest human rights advocate.
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Phil Cenendella, executive director of the National Association of Human Trafficking Victims Advocates, said during a recent public appearance, "We're a grass roots organization. Our goal is to help victim advocates on the ground."
Cenendella claims he sold most of his worldly goods, including his convertible and father's Rolex watch, to fund his organization. He has also questioned how other San Diego human rights advocates spend money, saying they're not doing enough for the cause. (For more on Cenendella's group, visit the website www.stopslavery2012.com)
Cenendella's claims come in the wake of heavy criticism of his own funding.
Marisa Ugarte, who has been advocating for human rights for 20 years, turned Cenendella down when he tried joining her human rights nonprofit the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition. (visit www.bsccoalition.org to learn more about the BSCC.)
"I blatantly told him, 'I don't trust you,'" she said. "All you're paying are his apartment and his bills and his computer and his food. He's not giving anything to anyone, not one penny."
Cenendella, who works from a small apartment in Ocean Beach, told 10News I-Team reporter Mitch Blacher, "Our goal is not to secure funding for me or for my association."
"Then how to you do your work if you don't get funding?" Blacher asked.
"Well, that is a conundrum," Cenendella said.
Cenendella's credibility is also being questioned by federal and local law enforcement in San Diego -- none of whom wanted to be named for this story. One agent mentioned a conference hosted by Cenendella called the La Jolla Human Trafficking Accords. The agent said Cenendella collected nearly $400 for each registration.
The source said, "There were no attendees who were true experts in the field of human trafficking. The source also said the conference "was a joke" and that "none of the service providers" who helped with the conference were ever paid.
Cenendella denied the claims and said he's not interested in money. He said his operating budget is less than $60,000 a year. (Click here to watch Cenendella's interview with CNN. Scroll to 4:59 mark of clip for the interview.)
There's no way to prove Cenendella's claims because his organization is not a nonprofit and doesn't maintain any public records.
Cenendella did say money for his organization pays for his "home office," which is also his apartment.
"So when somebody gives you money does it go into your personal bank account? Does it go into your business bank account? where does it go?" Blacher asked.
"That's a good question," Cenendella said. "It goes into my personal business bank account."
"Is that the same bank account that you'd use to go buy groceries?" asked Blacher
"Yes," responded Cenendellas.
"So, if somebody gives to your organization, how do they know you're not going to use it to buy groceries or pay rent?" Blacher asked. "How do they know it's going to help human trafficking victims?"
"Because they know me and they know the work that I do," Cenendella said.
Cenendella offered to reveal his financial records but he has not provided them.
Cenendella does not get any federal or state funding, but he admitted he does get "some outside money."
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