Montgomery Plans to Continue Contract With Nonprofit Under Investigation

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 13, 2009

Montgomery County officials plan to renew contracts worth about $450,000 with Centro Familia, a Wheaton nonprofit group whose use of thousands of dollars in county funds has been challenged by county accountants and the inspector general's office.

Uma Ahluwalia, director of the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, has told Centro Familia that it will continue to receive county funds while her agency examines its spending and bookkeeping practices.

The nonprofit group operates a bilingual preschool for about 30 children and trains at-home day-care providers. The exact amount of the renewed contracts is not certain, Ahluwalia said. Centro Familia and other nonprofit groups are being asked to more carefully track use of county funds they receive.

Ahluwalia said an ongoing review by her agency has led the county government to refuse to pay about $20,000 in Centro Familia expenses this year. Ahluwalia said the nonprofit was not providing sufficient documentation for the spending and has overcharged the county for personnel expenses and fringe benefits, rent and other costs.

The county inspector general's office, which has been examining Health and Human Services contracting, is also continuing to investigate Centro Familia's spending.

The group has an annual budget of about $700,000, with more than half coming from the county government. The organization also receives funds from the state and private sources.

County Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), chairwoman of the Education Committee, said she is asking county officials to fully brief the council about Centro Familia when the council returns this fall, saying she has concerns about the decision to renew the contracts. She added that the council needs "to get to the bottom of this, which is what I believe taxpayers expect from us."

Centro Familia's executive director, Pilar Torres, and board chairman, David H. Anderson, have spent much of the summer urging county officials, including County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), to continue the contracts. They said Centro Familia has been singled out and discriminated against in the probes.

In letters to county officials, Torres and Anderson accused them of "an appearance of discrimination based on ethnic or national origin" and suggested that they consult with the county's Commission on Human Rights. The nonprofit group's officials said they think it is owed "significant monies" by the county and that the investigations "create an aura of conspiracy and malfeasance that is defamatory." Anderson, who is chief operating officer of Lerch, Early & Brewer, a Bethesda law firm, said Torres is out of the country on vacation and is not reachable.

Montgomery Inspector General Thomas J. Dagley said in a statement that he and County Attorney Leon Rodriguez had been trying since July 10 to schedule a meeting with Torres to "resolve discrepancies involving specific invoices and documents provided to the county." But the meeting has not occurred. Torres will meet with them only with her attorney, Anderson said.

Dagley reported this year that his office had found irregularities by the county and Centro Familia in billing practices and payments for fiscal 2007 and 2008 and that about $900,000 in county funds was under review. He said that further analysis during March and April "verified the conditions" and that the organization's spending practices were "susceptible to abuse." Centro Familia has said the disputed amount is closer to $61,000. The inspector general's office is continuing to review the data and will look at the 2009 spending once Ahluwalia's office completes its review.

Ahluwalia said her agency, in response to earlier findings by the inspector general, had streamlined billing, improved oversight of outside contractors and educated employees and contractors about documentation.

Centro Familia is well connected in Montgomery political circles. The group's accountant is Larry Rosenblum, campaign treasurer for Leggett and treasurer of Friends of Ike Leggett, a political fundraising committee. Among the board members are Lillian Cruz, an aide to Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.); Del. Anne R. Kaiser (D-Montgomery); and Theresa Cameron, former head of Montgomery County's arts council.

Kaiser said in an interview that Centro Familia could do more to tighten its accounting practices but has "improved a lot" and will continue to do so.

"Centro Familia offers some great programs in the community" that deserve to be continued, she said.

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