Jordan Davis, a Minneapolis cop, was convicted this week of theft and fraud for stealing more than $140,000 that should have gone to heat poor people’s homes. He was proudly following in the footsteps of his father, Bill Davis, who recently pleaded guilty to 16 counts of theft and fraud for ransacking the coffers of Community Action of Minneapolis of hundreds of thousands of dollars over many years.
The good news is they got the bad guys. Some of them, anyway.
But such systematic pillaging doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Bill Davis used charm, intimidation, political ties and the race card to stop people from asking too many questions about the agency’s finances.
Numerous board members from both the public and private sector were either oblivious to rampant misspending or tacitly complicit. Several DFL heavies, including U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, state Sen. Jeff Hayden, Minneapolis City Council President Barb Johnson and former Council Member Robert Lilligren, served on the board through proxies.
After claiming he received no financial benefits from his wife’s position on the CAM board, Hayden repaid money for a trip to New York that was deemed inappropriate. As Republicans noted this week in calling for another ethics inquiry, Hayden’s repayment seems to make his previous claim a lie.
So will anyone else be held accountable?
According to the most recent of 18 monthly reports it has filed, CAM’s appointed receiver has sold CAM’s building and settled debts with all but a handful of people. None of the public officials, apart from Hayden, was shown to have profited directly from CAM’s disastrous run.
Yet records also clearly show “nonfeasance” — the failure to perform a duty — by all board members.
“The reason you have a board is to make sure that things like this don’t happen,” said Ruth McCambridge, editor of Nonprofit Quarterly. She said board members were using their positions to gain clout but ignored the most basic duties and are therefore ultimately responsible for the mess.
A review of the reports, plus legal billings, shows that investigators in the case have spoken either with the public officials who used proxies or with their representatives.
Attorney Jeff Ansel said the receiver “continues its evaluation of seeking reimbursement from board members whose proxies allegedly received improper benefits from CAM,” but has focused on getting money from the proxies themselves.
The latest report, issued in conjunction with the Minnesota attorney general’s office, said actions are still pending against:
• Fay Harrison, the proxy for Ellison on the board. CAM improperly paid for $8,870 worth of work on her home. In a settlement, her son has offered to pay back $2,500, but so far has paid just $300.
Ellison’s spokesman, Brett Morrow, said that the congressman “has not been approached requesting that he pay Ms. Harrison’s bill, and does not intend to cover her obligations.”
• Towanna Williams, a former board member. Williams owes $3,795 for a furnace paid for by CAM (CAM honchos liked to give away furnaces to people they knew, which means poor people who were not friends of Davis didn’t get them).
• Molly Thoulouis, a former CAM board member. She still owes $500, a bonus that was paid through block-grant funds, records show.
• Anthony Spears, the former CEO. Spears “authorized the improper spending by Mr. Davis” for more than $350,000, court records show.
• Patricia Banks, a girlfriend of Davis’. She was paid more than $30,000 through a “no-show job” at MAD DADS, another nonprofit agency geared toward anti-violence programs. Hayden sat on both boards.
An intern was paid another $14,000 for work that did not benefit CAM, records show. CAM also bought $1,572 worth of personalized hats and jackets for MAD DADS, which was labeled “capacity building.”
Let’s hope the prison system also does some capacity building by adding the Davis family tree.
The June report said the insurance company was in the process of reviewing whether it would cover all of the claims. McCambridge, who said pursuit of board members relies on a strong state attorney general (the Minnesota attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment), noted that board members in a recent New York case had to pay $1 million for squandered nonprofit money.
Kate Barr, executive director of the Nonprofits Assistance Fund, said insurance companies can and do refuse to cover board members when they are grossly negligent in their duties, which she said they were here.
Their duties are “so clearly spelled out,” Barr said. “You can’t say, ‘I didn’t know you were supposed to do it.’ ”
Being a terrible board member is not a crime, so if debts were met, it’s doubtful elected officials are on the hook financially. But let’s hope some shame lingers for a long time.
Barr said an external auditor should have met with board members, without Davis present, to discuss problems. She doesn’t know if that happened. “Even if you didn’t find misuse of funds, you should have found poor internal controls,” she said.
Jeff Kowieski, a partner for the auditor, Wipfli, said he could not comment on the case.
The receiver’s reports are a bit slippery on at least one point. They state that public officials quit the board immediately after learning of the devastating audit. Not true. Some quit the board weeks later, following this newspaper’s publishing of that audit. The others quit after the FBI raided CAM, a few days after our report.
It was a compelling show of indignation by the public officials at the massive fraud. But I had a question for Barr: Wouldn’t it have been more ethical and responsible for those board members to have stayed on to help sort this mess out?
“Sure,” said Barr. “If you have a job to do, you are supposed to show up.”
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