Audit Excoriates United Way Leadership
$1.5 Million Went To Former Chief
By Jacqueline L. Salmon and Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 25, 2004;
The longtime head of the local United Way received more than $1.5 million in apparently improper or questionable payments from the organization during his 27-year tenure, according to a 200-page independent investigative audit to be released today. The audit, more than seven months in the making, gives a scathing review, depicting the charity as a place where top managers were permitted to dip into the millions of dollars in public donations with little or no oversight.
The report names five other current or former employees of the United Way of the National Capital Area as having racked up an additional $69,500 in expenses lacking adequate documentation in recent years, some of it seemingly for personal reasons.
Oral Suer, who retired as the organization's chief executive in February 2001, is the leading figure in the report, having tapped into a variety of employee benefits through questionable means: a premature pension payment, a deferred compensation program and advances on his salary that were never repaid, according to the report.
Suer also made himself a paragon of personal charity by pledging as much as $9,000 a year to the local United Way, then paid off the pledges by taking extra payments from the charity, according to the audit, a copy of which was made available to The Washington Post yesterday.
The investigation, by the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, was recommended last year by an outside ethics panel that examined the charity's policies and practices. Although management had previously rejected such an audit, the organization's board at the time overruled that decision, and a new board in January expanded the audit's scope.
In their extensive report, auditors noted a "clear lack of transparency, personal accountability and stewardship of donated funds within the organization by its former officers, particularly . . . under Mr. Suer's tenure."
The audit concludes that many details of the organization's finances are incomplete because Suer and some other former staff members declined to cooperate. Boxes of documents are missing, too.
His last day on the job, Suer was seen driving away with "several station wagon loads" of files, the report says, citing an employee. The auditors added that they do not know what the documents contained or where they are.
The audit also reports an array of financial arrangements involving Suer that were not fully explained. Among them: a special "exchange account" from which he could withdraw money; paychecks processed manually and separately from the organization's payroll; $100,000 in additional payments to him in 1986 that had no supporting documentation, and a $3 million loan in 1999 from the Combined Federal Campaign that apparently was repaid without interest.
The report confirms a series of Washington Post articles last year about financial irregularities at the regional United Way, one of 1,400 affiliates of the United Way of America, and shows that the problems were larger in scope than previously reported.
"It's ugly," said William Couper, who took over as chairman of the group's 21-member volunteer board of directors in January after the previous board was disbanded during the controversy. The auditors "have turned over every rock. . . . They have been in every closet in the place."
One of those searches turned up Suer's executive calendars, with notations such as one for Dec. 21, 1987, holding that date for a trip to the races with William Aramony. Aramony, then president of the United Way of America, later was convicted of stealing $1.2 million from United Way.
In recent months, United Way leaders have sought to restore donors' trust by trimming their budget and staff, overhauling financial controls and bringing in new management.
The audit, commissioned by the local affiliate last year after months of controversy over its fiscal management, is the most comprehensive outside look yet at the organization, which raises millions of dollars each year and is a critical source of funding for hundreds of local nonprofits.
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