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Cash Donation Sat in NYC College Mailroom for Months

Categories : Cash generates security, Cash is trust, Cash protects privacy and anonymity
January 20, 2022
Tags : Due diligence, Philanthropy, Privacy and anonymity, Trust, US
An anonymous donor sent a large cash donation in a cardboard box to the City College of New York. After sitting in a mailroom for months, the cash gift will fund scholarships for a decade.
Manuel A. Bautista-González

Ph.D. in U.S. History, Columbia University in the City of New York

Post-Doctoral Researcher in Global Correspondent Banking, 1870-2000 – Mexico and South America, University of Oxford

This post is also available in: Spanish

On September 1, 2021, when Dr. Vinod Menon, chair of the Physics Department at the City College of New York (CCNY), returned to his office in Harlem for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, he found a cardboard box in his office mail. Menon found the package contained $180,000 in $50 and $100 bills, bundled in paper bands.

The package had an unsigned letter from a former CCNY graduate in physics and mathematics who wished to remain anonymous. In the letter, the donor asked that the gift helps deserving physics and mathematics students “in need of financial support to continue their studies.”

The box weighed 2 kgs (4 pounds, 8 ounces) and arrived at CCNY on November 12, 2020, from Pensacola, Florida, by 2-day Priority Mail, at a rate of $90.80. The package had been sitting for months in CCNY’s central mailroom through the spring of 2021. “It’s crazy that it just sat in the mailroom, or even that it was sent by mail – the person trusted the system so much,” said Menon.

Cash Gifts and Due Diligence

“I know a lot of academics, and I’ve never heard of anything like this. I didn’t know if the college accepted cash, so I didn’t know if they’d keep it,” Menon added. CCNY’s policies encourage donors to make gifts “easily by credit card, personal check, cashier’s check, or money order […] using [the] online form or send via postal mail,” in a partial acknowledgement that people are donating less with the growth of cashless payments. This problem has worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I’ve never seen this kind of money in real life in cash form. I’ve never seen it except in movies, and so, yeah, I was shell shocked and I just did not know how to react,” Menon said. Immediately after opening the box, Menon called the Dean of Sciences.

CCNY belongs to the City University of New York (CUNY) system, the largest urban public university in the United States. CUNY officials began an inquiry into the origin of the funds. The money was “treated like evidence […] to see if it was possible that this was proceeds from criminal activity,” said Pat Morena, CCNY Department of Public Safety chief.

Despite the commonplace assumption that cash enables money laundering by obscuring its origins, the evidence in the box proved its legitimacy while maintaining the donor’s anonymity. The package’s return address did not lead to the donor. Based on information of the bands bundling the cash, agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigations’ Financial Crimes Unit found it had been withdrawn from several banks in Maryland in recent years and did not connect the gift to criminal activity.

After a month-long investigation, authorities told CUNY officials the donor’s identity “really was untraceable,” said Chief Morena. “Who gets $180,000 sent to them in currency, and the person who’s sending it is anonymous?” said Chief Morena.

A Cash Gift with a Big Impact

In its December 13, 2021 meeting, the Board of Trustees of CUNY unanimously approved a resolution accepting the cash gift.

The cash gift will fund two full-tuition scholarships each year for a decade, starting in the fall semester of 2022. “Seeing the money was a shock. Reading the letter really made me proud and happy to belong to this institution, which actually made a difference in that person’s life,” Menon said.

This post is also available in: Spanish