Gary Schiff says he bears no responsibility for the mishandling of a federal grant by the now-defunct Council on Crime and Justice, but two people who worked on the project say the project's failure is partly the fault of the Minneapolis City Council candidate.
Schiff was president of the nonprofit for about a year, and took over three years after it received a $1.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to create a statewide crime victims legal assistance network.
But the network was never created, Schiff was removed as president, the grant was frozen after a federal audit and the Council on Crime and Justice dissolved.
Schiff, who is running for City Council in the Ninth Ward against Alondra Cano and Mohamed Farah, wasn't named in the audit, and federal investigators didn't allege any fraud. Schiff told the Star Tribune the program was frozen while he was in charge.
Two consultants who worked on the project, however, said that's not true, and both were sharply critical of Schiff for his inaction at a key time.
"To say that he didn't work on that project is a lie," said Becky Ericson, who was the principal investigator at the start of the grant and was working as a contractor while Schiff was head of the Council on Crime and Justice.
'He did nothing'
The last five months of Schiff's stint as president of the nonprofit were crucial ones for the grant, which was a big revenue stream for the Council, founded in 1957.
Three years of research had taken place, and the next step was to implement a pilot program in which crime victims could take advantage of legal help. The Department of Justice had accepted a brief implementation plan on the condition that a more detailed plan be submitted later.
A January 2015 e-mail from Schiff to the grant's legal partners, including Anishinabe Legal Services and the Immigrant Law Center, said, "I'm excited as we approach the actual implementation phase this year!"
Andy Sagvold, who had been overseeing the grant, had just left the organization and Ericson and another consultant, Russ Stricker, sat down with Schiff in January to talk about what needed to be done. Schiff needed to quickly carry out several tasks, they said, such as hiring a lead legal navigator and establishing an electronic way to collect data from partner organizations. And Schiff needed to communicate with federal authorities, explain the next steps and lock in funding for the implementation.
But Schiff didn't follow through, Stricker and Ericson said. E-mails show Schiff was unresponsive to e-mails from people he was supposed to report to in Washington, D.C., never interviewed the top candidate for the legal navigator position and never submitted a more detailed plan to the Department of Justice.
"He did nothing," said Stricker. "I believe it's because of his inactivity that the project failed, and that's why the feds decided to do an audit."
Plan in dispute
Schiff disagrees. He says the full implementation plan was needed before other work could go forward, and he didn't have staff who could work on it.
"At no point did I set about writing that implementation plan myself, I set about hiring someone," Schiff said. "I don't have a Ph.D. in research. That was never my responsibility."
Schiff said soon after he hired staff to write the plan, he was fired. The Council's board chairman, Tom Boardman, told Schiff he had six weeks left in the job and he would have to tell the job candidates that they wouldn't be hired.
Boardman did not return calls for comment.
Sagvold was rehired as the president of the Council on Crime and Justice after Schiff left in May 2015, and when Sagvold submitted an implementation plan later that year, it was rejected, and the grant was frozen in early 2016, according to the federal audit. One of many problems identified in the audit was that the Council paid too high of an hourly rate to research consultants, without approval from the Department of Justice.
Stricker said he believes the implementation plan could have been written while Schiff was president, if he'd hired the legal navigator and demonstrated commitment to the project.
"It's complicated, but he definitely had a role, and he dropped it," Stricker said. "For him to say he didn't have a role is ludicrous."
A tough situation
Schiff had pressing concerns as president of the nonprofit. He had to raise money for the organization, which was already in deep financial trouble. Also, the Department of Justice grant was already suffering from accounting problems and late reports before Schiff was involved, the audit shows.
But the grant was one of the biggest revenue sources for the nonprofit, said Ericson, and Schiff failed to take responsibility for it.
Ericson's husband was Richard Ericson, the longtime head of the Council on Crime and Justice who died in 2006. She said losing the grant was a huge blow to the organization, which shut down for good a year after Schiff left.
"I'm not trying to say he's the whole reason the place went down," Ericson said. But "I think he made no real effort to understand this project. It was the most significant grant they had at the time, so one would think that he would pay attention."