Clearly there were no winners in the collapse of the Tri County Community Action Commission, but at least there is now some degree of closure.
Earlier this week, the former executive director Denise Birt entered a plea and agreed to pay back $75,000 that was overpaid her in regular installments over a decade during which the organization crumbled. But it is far from a victory for the taxpayers or the local businesses that have suffered as a result of the irresponsible management of the agency.
The non-profit organization, born of the community action movement set in motion by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 celebrated its 50th birthday during the past three years of turmoil, but it is now no more than an entity in name only — existing for the sole purpose of trying to settle debts still owed to vendors that were never paid and government agencies that still question whether the money they provided was spent as intended.
Fortunately, however, the services Tri County once provided in Logan, Champaign and Shelby counties have continued under the guidance of the other groups capable of managing the programs — including the Community Action Organization of Delaware, Madison and Union Counties that took over the bulk of programming; RTC Industries, which now handles Transportation Logan County; and LifeCare Alliance that delivers meals to senior citizens through the Meals on Wheels program.
Unfortunately, a number of businesses have faced significant financial loss or were never paid for goods or services provided to Tri County over the final years. Not least among those is a local bank that provided a loan on a building the organization should never have borrowed money against. A civil lawsuit is nearing settlement in the federal court system, but the bank likely still will face a financial loss, those close to the case report.
There are also the unpaid vendors. While Al Evans, who took over leadership of the Tri County Board after nearly everyone else abandoned ship following the March 2014 collapse, said the $75,000 to be repaid by Birt should go to those vendors, it will be far from enough to pay them all.
One bright spot among the difficult case is the hard work of the Logan County Prosecutor’s Office, led by former Prosecutor William T. Goslee, to try to hold Birt accountable.
As evidence emerged that she not only had been granted use of company cars — one of which was a BMW — but also was receiving regular biweekly or weekly payments of $203.21 for the privilege of driving those vehicles, it sure seemed like something criminal had happened.
But still experts and ordinary citizens disagreed. Some investigators said no criminal charges should be filed, while others believed the actions warranted charges. The case was presented to two separate grand juries and the first group of nine Logan County citizens opted not to hand up an indictment. The second returned a list of four felony charges and a misdemeanor.
With the difficulty obtaining an indictment from a grand jury, proving a criminal case beyond a reasonable doubt to 12 jurors would have been an uphill battle.
While the $75,000 may not be enough to pay off all the vendors wronged and satisfy the government agencies that provided taxpayer money to Tri County, it is as current Prosecutor Eric Stewart and Assistant Prosecutor Daniel Huston referred to it: “An equitable solution” to a complicated case.
Repaying $75,000 along with significant legal fees is no small punishment in this case and locking up the 61-year-old former director seems to serve no significant purpose. It is unlikely she again will work in a position in which she is entrusted millions of dollars of taxpayer money; so her chance of reoffending is minimal.
While there are no winners, there is a lesson to be learned from the case.
The well-meaning individuals who volunteer their time to serve on boards of non-profit organizations must realize they cannot always blindly trust the executive directors they pay big salaries to competently handle the big decisions.
Non-profit boards, which are not always conducted with the same degree of openness and transparency as is required of government entities, need to critically evaluate individuals in charge of nonprofit organizations and hold the leaders accountable for the taxpayer money that is being spent.
While it is not always easy for a single board member to question the decisions of an executive director, it is incumbent on the individuals that make up these boards to help safeguard the public and prevent future abuses like the one that led to the collapse of the Tri County Community Action Commission.
Reuben Mees is an Examiner staff writer who has covered the Tri County case since March 2014. He can be reached at 592-3060, ext. 1136 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.