For years people in the nonprofit world questioned the financial dealings of Bill Davis, and every time, his powerful DFL friends stood behind him.
When Xcel Energy reported abnormal heating assistance requests from Community Action of Minneapolis in 2011, they stood behind him. Even when staff members at the Department of Commerce sent their boss a memo recommending it sever ties with the Davis-run agency over poor work and financial mismanagement, the DFL friends stood behind him.
When Davis pleaded guilty last week to 16 counts of fraud and theft of money meant to heat the homes of the poor, however, he was largely alone.
None of the girlfriends who accompanied him on expensive taxpayer-funded vacations showed up. Not even the one who got a trip to Florida while an audit was being conducted, nor the girlfriend who got a new mattress while the Department of Human Services was trying to reach Davis about missing money.
The 33-page court document outlining the theft by Davis is a study in mendacity and conceit. According to a trial brief, Davis bullied his staff and fired them if they asked too many questions. He made his CFO cry. As the CEO of the nonprofit, he hid information from his board and regulators and didn’t let his employees speak to any of them.
Yet, there were plenty of signs over the years that things were not right inside the agency — soaring administrative costs and rapidly deteriorating outcomes. Yet Davis continued to get contracts with the state. He had been president of the state NAACP and a DFL delegate. He was once chair of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission. He was untouchable.
When analysts did try to rein in the agency, Davis cried racism. In a 2013 public hearing over future controls for funding of energy programs, he said cost control measures “are again nothing shy of profiling people of color, profiling low-income people and trafficking in prejudice, if you will. We are spending an awful lot of time and resources trying to establish that poor people are criminal-minded,” he said.
Turns out, regulators were suspicious of the wrong people, if you will.
Asked one Father’s Day what he learned from his dad, Davis told this newspaper: “I was told in order to be successful, you had to have both book knowledge and street knowledge. Street knowledge is understanding your community … being street smart.”
Street smart to Davis was using the agency credit card to charge $4,000 to $6,000 per month for personal use. Court documents said he spent some of that on five girlfriends. I guess an open credit card paid for by the taxpayers makes a guy pretty attractive to the ladies. So does an obscene annual salary of more than a quarter-million dollars, a salary that was never questioned. Now that’s knowing your community.
Money apparently doesn’t translate to good taste, however. Davis allowed himself to buy a new car yet chose a Chrysler, then put “pillar posts” on it. Sweet, if you are 20.
“It’s a classic example of hubris,” said Pam Marshall, executive director of Energy CENTS coalition, a nonprofit that works for affordable energy bills for low-income people. “He said he would be vindicated, then pleads guilty to 16 charges. It’s the same level of arrogance that led him do this stuff in the first place.”
Marshall’s career in energy programs for the poor paralleled that of Davis — minus the fraud. “Everybody saw and complained of financial mismanagement,” she said, but “I think he had people” over several administrations in the Department of Commerce “who allowed this stuff to happen.”
When Davis admitted that Community Action Minneapolis had given away $100,000 in assistance to people who didn’t qualify for it, he called himself “Santa Claus,” Marshall said.
Rather than offer to pay it back from the agency, Davis suggested the state recoup it from his clients, most of whom could not pay it back, Marshall said.
She said Davis was known to bully “lily white” regulators who questioned his program by calling them racist. When they backed down and did nothing to stop him, “that actually was the racist moment,” Marshall said.
Susan Gaertner, Davis’ attorney, said after his plea hearing she would ask for leniency for her client.
“My goal at sentencing is to make clear to the judge that these acts of using some CAM funds for personal expenses do not define Bill Davis,” she said, adding that “he had a long career, that his passion was serving low-income families and that he deeply regrets the choices he made.”
Choices he made, again and again and again, over many years while lying to everyone around him. No, Ms. Gaertner, those choices — crimes — do define Bill Davis. They epitomize Bill Davis.
“I hope the punishment matches the crime,” Marshall said. “It’s criminal to steal money from low-income people, particularly when you espouse to be their champion.”
One of the scams Davis pleaded guilty to was running a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shop that purported to train young people but really seemed to exist mostly to support his son, who reportedly never did a lick of work at the shop. He will go on trial next week.
One of the flavors created by Ben & Jerry’s is called Empower Mint. Seriously.
Perhaps the Davis saga will inspire the company to create a new flavor. Let’s hope they call it Imprison Mint.
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin