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Published: Tuesday, 3/6/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

EOPA probe shows misuse of federal funds

Lot-mowing, gardens cited

BY KATE GIAMMARISE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

An internal investigation at a Toledo anti-poverty agency revealed federal money was spent for mowing lots that did not exist, on community gardens that were never developed, and that the agency hired a convicted felon to work with senior citizens, according to records obtained by The Blade.

The 2010 probe was conducted into the operations at the Economic Opportunity Planning Association of Greater Toledo, but it is not clear what changes — if any — were made at the organization based on the findings.

VIEW: EOPA Investigation Report

EOPA — one of Toledo’s largest anti-poverty organizations — has been under fire in recent months for its administration of the Head Start program. The federal government recently notified the agency it will have to compete with other groups if it wants to continue receiving $13 million a year to run Head Start in Toledo and Lucas County.

Last week, the Toledo Board of Education voted 5-0 to authorize Superintendent Jerome Pecko to apply to take over Head Start.

The move has set off a political firestorm, with EOPA’s supporters — including former Toledo mayors Jack Ford and Carty Finkbeiner — criticizing what they and several black community leaders consider an attempt to dismantle one of the city’s remaining black institutions.

RELATED: EOPA backers support its bid for Head Start

The report of the 2010 investigation — conducted by Toledo attorney Richard Mitchell, who represented EOPA at the time — made 13 recommendations, including additional management training in ethics, the creation of a criminal background check policy for EOPA employees, follow-up with contractors to justify the federal money they received, protecting human resources personnel to “insulate them from the influence of difficult political environments and requests for personal favors,” and EOPA legal counsel reviewing all proposed contracts.

James Powell, EOPA’s chief executive officer, refused several requests from The Blade for an interview to discuss the 2010 report and problems at the agency. Instead, he issued a statement downplaying the findings in the report and saying that “what may be controverted payments is less than $500.”

“Under the circumstances, review of internal procedures may be appropriate but the need for return of any funds has not yet been verified,” Mr. Powell said in his statement.

At the time the report was presented, the agency’s board voted to discipline three of the employees named in the report, but then subsequent board members reversed that decision, according to current and former board members and EOPA personnel records.

“We didn’t think that the investigation was warranted,” said Sylvester Gould, the board’s vice president, who was not a board member at the time the report was presented in December, 2010. “The last board was overstepping its bounds,” Mr. Gould said.

He characterized the report as “one-sided” and “done improperly,” saying the allegations in the report were not appropriate for the agency’s legal counsel to have looked into. The 16-page report also has nearly 80 pages of supporting documents such as a sworn affidavit, internal emails, and agency records.

Mr. Gould said the report’s recommendations were “handled” inside the agency.

Mr. Mitchell, the report’s author, declined to comment on the report or any of its contents, saying the information was covered by attorney-client privilege.

Mr. Gould said that Mr. Mitchell is no longer EOPA’s primary legal counsel.

Board President Richard Jackson said further investigation uncovered no improprieties. “It was cleared up,” he said, adding he is satisfied there are no outstanding problems.

$19.5 million budget

EOPA has a more than a $19.5 million annual budget — all taxpayer funded — according to its most recent tax returns. The agency, located on Hamilton Street in central Toledo, runs the county’s Head Start program, and a slew of other social services such as the Home Energy Assistance Program, an emergency home-repair program, a fatherhood initiative, a homelessness prevention program, and a senior brokering program, which provides home visits and other services for seniors.

According to the Mitchell report, Michelle Popoff, a project coordinator for EOPA’s program to mow vacant lots, claimed in a sworn statement that contractors were being paid for mowing lots they did not mow and paid for mowing lots that could not be mowed.

“The first time I knew there was a real problem was when I was on Cleveland Street,” she said in an affidavit included with the report. “I couldn’t find the 800 block of Cleveland and searched for half an hour for the address.”

Cleveland Street is four blocks long in North Toledo off Summit Street near Jamie Farr Park. Ms. Popoff said according to EOPA records a contractor had been paid to mow lots at 803, 807, 811, 815, and 821 Cleveland.

She listed 17 properties, including those on Cleveland, in her sworn statement that she tried to verify as being cut but from her review did not believe existed. Ms. Popoff listed 20 additional properties she believes were not cut, but were paid to be cut by EOPA.

As part of Mr. Mitchell’s investigation, he found the same thing that Ms. Popoff did — that the 17 addresses, including the five lots in the nonexistent 800 block of Cleveland — “do not exist.”

Mr. Mitchell’s investigation found too much time had passed to determine if the allegations were accurate about contractors being paid for lots they didn’t mow.

However, he found Ms. Popoff’s “comments in many areas have proved to be credible.”

His report noted, “grass was reported to be chest high on some lots allegedly mowed” and certain addresses could not be mowed, including lots on Ontario Street, Tecumseh Street, Cleveland Street, and others. “The above addresses could not have been mowed, but were billed and paid for. There is at least some reason to believe that certain contractors may have billed for services they did not perform,” the report notes.

Mr. Powell’s statement said EOPA sought additional information from the contractors regarding these allegations.

“One responded credibly and quickly. The other did not respond to our inquiries, but previously noted a concern about correctness of the addresses the company was given. … At least one contractor credibly stated that he worked on adjacent lots when there were address concerns. Additionally, agency representatives met with City of Toledo officials to address incorrect address problems and worked to resolve those problems early on,” Mr. Powell said in his statement.

Mr. Powell and other EOPA officials refused to tell The Blade the total amount of federal money EOPA paid to mow the nonexistent lots. What is known is that EOPA received $185,733 in stimulus funds from the federal government to mow vacant lots in the city, according to EOPA Finance Director Robert Jordan.

EOPA received more than $3 million in stimulus funds, according to the Web site recovery.gov, which tracks stimulus money. The bulk of the funds allocated to EOPA were designated for Head Start, a community development block grant, and homelessness prevention, according to the site.

City of Toledo spokesman Jen Sorgenfrei said EOPA’s report was never presented to the city, which had provided a list of addresses for agency contractors to mow.

Stimulus funds

There were more questions raised in the Mitchell report about federal stimulus funds received by EOPA to create community gardens in Toledo. EOPA reported to federal officials it had created 12 community gardens as of June 30, 2010 and 22 community gardens by September 30, 2010.

“Given that it seems none of the community garden workers had been hired before June 30, 2010, it is not possible for 12 to have been completed by June 30,” Mr. Mitchell stated in his report. “It does appear that false information as to the status of the community gardens program was reported in the work plans.”

According to EOPA records in the Mitchell report that documented the progress of the “Plant/Seed Program,” the agency had “expended” $69,262 in federal stimulus funds in 2010 to build 22 gardens.

The Mitchell report stated that it could only locate 10 community gardens that had been established by EOPA, and Ms. Popoff stated in her sworn affidavit that EOPA leaders were only interested in two gardens.

“[Employee] Mr. [Eric] Slack, Mr. [James] Powell, and another gentleman were just interested in the Belmont [Avenue] and Obrien [Street] lots getting developed (meaning getting things planted),” Ms. Popoff stated. “... Mr. Slack said they were in a hurry with that location because there was going to be a tour where they thought [U.S.] Congresswoman [Marcy] Kaptur and the press might come by and they needed to get [those lots] developed.”

Mr. Mitchell pointed out to the EOPA board in his report the seriousness of the agency or its employees filing false records with the federal government. He included in the report portions of the federal False Claims Act that call for “a civil penalty of not less than $5,000 and not more than $10,000, plus 3 times the amount of damages,” for a person who makes “a false or fraudulent claim for payment” to a federal office.

Hiring questioned

Additionally, the Mitchell report concluded “purposeful impropriety” as well as “systemic failures” occurred around the hiring of Seffan Elizabeth Hoskins in early 2009, “an employee in the family service programs department [who] was found to have a criminal background that prohibited her from working as a senior broker under EOPA’s contract with the Area Office on Aging.”

Hoskins was convicted in June, 2005, for possession of crack cocaine. In a separate incident, she was sentenced in August, 2006, to probation, drug treatment, and a suspended driver’s license for three years for a conviction of attempted vehicular homicide for killing a pedestrian on Dorr Street in 2005.

The report states that the Area Office on Aging told EOPA that everyone working in the program must pass a criminal background check. The senior program assists those 60 and older and people with disabilities with nutrition and medical care.

“This is critical because a senior broker is required to perform home visits for seniors, among other things,” according to the report, which found Hoskins did not meet minimum job qualifications, such as having a valid driver’s license, but was still awarded the position.

The report found “improper favoritism [was] injected into the hiring process. The Program Director, the CEO and the COO acknowledged that favoritism impacted this hire.”

The report also contains an email from one agency employee questioning the hiring of Hoskins, noting that another candidate was far more qualified.

The agency’s chief operating officer, Greg Hopkins, noted in an email: “I don’t know how she [Hoskins] will get back and forth to different sites [regarding her lack of a driver’s license.] Maybe they will put her at one site and leave her. The decision to hire was made by the Executive Director [James Powell], who has final decision on ALL new hires as well as terminations.”

Hoskins was fired from the agency in February, 2010. She could not be reached for comment.

Billie Johnson, president and chief executive officer for the Area Office on Aging for Northwest Ohio, which contracts with EOPA for the senior brokering program, said background checks are required for those working for the program. She said her agency was never notified of the oversight surrounding this employee or the internal investigation.

“The first we heard about it was from you,” she told The Blade.

Overturning actions

After receiving the Mitchell report, EOPA’s board voted to suspend Director of Rehabilitation, Weldon Douthitt; Director of Planning, Eric Slack, and Director of Community Resource Coordinating, William Mosely, but the suspensions were overturned shortly thereafter and Mr. Slack, who had been suspended without pay, had his pay restored.

After several new members joined the board, in February, 2011, the board voted to rescind all disciplinary action that had been taken.

“The agency did what any responsible agency would do when confronted with general allegations. It investigated the allegations and made recommendations responsive to meet potential issues identified through its investigation,” Mr. Powell, EOPA’s chief executive officer, said in his statement to The Blade.

“Upon further review, there were concerns about fairness that led to a new board desiring a ‘clean slate’ and new direction. Significant contemplation occurred with all decisions. That is what’s required of the agency’s board.”

There is no indication that federal authorities were informed about the findings in the Mitchell report of possible fraud involving federal money.

EOPA Board President Richard Jackson said the agency is focused on the future and maintaining its Head Start program.

“Nobody wants to look back and see what happened two years ago. We took care of it,” he said.

Contact Kate Giammarise at: kgiammarise@theblade.com or 419-724-6091.


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