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St. Paul nonprofit under scrutiny amid questions about how it uses public money

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A nonprofit organization in St. Paul is under scrutiny after complaints that the group may be misusing public money have come to light.

The organization is Breaking Free, which provides assistance to women and girls who have been victims of prostitution or sex trafficking, and it denies any wrongdoing.

Breaking Free has received funding from several sources, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. From 2009-2013, it was given $2.4 million by government agencies and $2.1 million by foundations, companies and individuals, tax documents show.

The complaints came in a letter that former employees, volunteers and a board member of Breaking Free wrote in April to several state agencies, the Pioneer Press reports.

The letter claimed Breaking Free is not providing the services it's been paid to deliver; that some funds were used for the"personal benefit" of the executive director and her family - including paying for a vacation to St. Thomas; and that people who raised concerns were harassed and threatened by leaders of the organization, according to the newspaper.

The complaints were forwarded to the Minnesota Attorney General's office, which contacted more than a dozen local and national agencies who have either donated money to Breaking Free or have some other relationship with the group, KSTP reports.

The letter encourages those agencies to review their funding history with Breaking Free and take any action they believe is appropriate.

In a statement posted on the organization's website, Breaking Free founder Vednita Carter called the allegations "unfounded."

"Breaking Free had no knowledge of this letter until weeks after its release. I would like to take this opportunity also to assure you that Breaking Free has taken these allegations seriously, and in response has hired a third party consulting agency to investigate the claims and publicly report the results."

Carter told the Pioneer Press her organization has "spent our money on what we were supposed to spend it on. We've always done that and our audits show it."

Carter maintains that Breaking Free's services are in high demand, especially the housing it offers to victims.

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Separately from the investigation, Carter also announced that Breaking Free will discontinue its services to girls under the age of 18, and will instead focus on assisting adult victims of prostitution and sex trafficking.

Carter said over the past five years, only about 10 percent of its clients have been minors, and they will be referred to other social service agencies for help.

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