It isn't all smiles this weekend as 920 family members of fallen American troops romp through Orange County aboard the Snowball Express, an all-expenses-paid jaunt to Disneyland, a hockey game, an elaborate party and other festivities.
As the charitable program cranked into gear Friday, organizer Michael Kerr found himself confronting revelations about his checkered past and questions over whether someone's dark side outweighs his good deeds.
"Is it bad to be a person who has made mistakes and is now trying to do the right thing?" Kerr asked in an e-mail statement to the media. "Would it be a better story if I had just given up?"
The debate erupted earlier this month when an OC Weekly article revealed that while Kerr was reaching out to the children of killed military personnel, there was a warrant for his arrest in Arizona for failure to pay nearly $50,000 in child support.
He had also been successfully sued by a former employer over $78,000 in overdue child support, court records show.
At first, the 47-year-old Laguna Niguel resident disputed the article's accuracy. But late Thursday, he issued a statement acknowledging that he owes "a considerable sum of money" for his three offspring, although he said the lawsuit filed by his former employer, Equis Corp., was not over child support.
"For a time, my life was a mess," he said. "I became addicted to drugs. Not only did I fail to pay my obligations to my children, but I literally had no place to live."
Kerr said he began cooperating with Arizona authorities last summer to establish a restitution program. "I have paid a total of $8,147.18 and will continue to pay," he said.
As evidence of his turnaround, Kerr sent one Snowball volunteer several letters from his son Sean.
"I'm proud of the progress you're making," the boy told Kerr in one missive. Another letter said, "My birthday is next Thursday as I assume you know and I'm going to be 17. If you didn't know but I assume you do, [my sister] Emily's birthday is November 6."
News of Kerr's past created a rift in the network of people involved in his plan to bring military families to Orange County. Many defended him against "bottom feeder" journalism, but others wondered if Kerr might be hiding more skeletons.
Public records show that in 1998, the NASD, which governs brokerage firms, suspended Kerr's securities license for two years. His offense, according to news reports, was allegedly telling a client he would lose $1,000 on the sale of municipal bonds "even though Kerr knew or should have known the investor would lose $1,800."
In a telephone interview Friday, Kerr blamed the incident on his former drug addiction. "I could not perform my job," he said.
Earlier that year, Kerr and his then-wife also filed for bankruptcy, records indicate.
Also in 1998, Kerr launched his first Snowball Express, a Phoenix program that flew 120 needy children over the city in a jet and then treated them to a party featuring Santa Claus arriving on a firetruck.
Some of this year's Snowball planners said they are unconcerned with Kerr's past. There are contradictions within every human, said Al Krueger, director of government affairs at Oakley sunglasses, which hosts a party for the families today.
"If we did a background check on the hundreds of people volunteering at this event, we would all have blemishes," Krueger said. "I don't think [Kerr's history] detracts from the event at all."
On the phone Friday, Kerr said, "I have not been a perfect man, but I asked for God's forgiveness, and it has led to this effort."
Krueger called Kerr "a visionary" and "an amazing individual."
Not everyone shares that outlook.
"Really great guys don't have arrest warrants for owing $50,000 in child support," said Karen Zacharias, a Snowball Express volunteer and former journalist who wrote a book on how families deal with the death of a military parent.
She also pointed to inaccuracies on Kerr's resume posted on his former employer's website. It lists him as a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and describes him as a licensed real estate salesman in California and Arizona.
UC Santa Barbara officials said he was enrolled for two quarters but didn't earn a degree. State records show his real estate licenses expired in 1993 in California and 1998 in Arizona.
Kerr blamed his former employer for inaccuracies in the resume. Company officials couldn't be reached for comment Friday.
Zacharias, who helped publicize Snowball Express and flew in from Oregon to show support for the military families, said she now feels torn about the event.
"My dilemma this weekend is that I don't want to lend any credibility to Michael Kerr," she said. "He outright lied to me when I asked him about the OC Weekly article."
Debbie Gregory of militaryconnections.com, another key Snowball promoter, said Kerr banned her from attending the event after she peppered him with questions about his background and Snowball's finances.
Gregory sent Kerr an e-mail saying his past money problems made her uneasy about his role "overseeing funds or anything else for the children and widows of fallen soldiers."
In his Thursday press statement, Kerr said the foundation he set up to sponsor the event had raised $99,000 and that he receives no compensation. The group also received $1 million in in-kind contributions, Kerr said.
The M. Scott Kerr Foundation's application for nonprofit status is being processed, he noted.