FBI reviews spending by Montgomery's Centro Familia

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 2, 2009

The FBI is looking into the spending practices at Centro Familia, a Wheaton nonprofit group that runs a bilingual preschool, trains day-care providers and receives about $450,000 annually in contracts from Montgomery County, the organization's executive director has acknowledged.

A bureau agent visited the organization's office last week and interviewed at least one of its staff members. Centro Familia, which is well-connected in Montgomery political circles, has also been under scrutiny by the county's independent inspector general and the county's health and human services department. FBI Special Agent Richard Wolf of the Baltimore field office said he could not comment.

Pilar Torres, Centro Familia's executive director, said an FBI agent visited her office last week. She denied any wrongdoing and said the organization had not misused funds.

Torres said, "There has absolutely been no wrongdoing" by her agency.

She said the investigations are "a witch hunt based on innuendo. . . . It is a strong abuse of power by county officials."

Centro Familia has an annual budget of about $700,000, about half coming from county government. The health and human services department has been conducting its own examination of Centro Familia's financial records, after reports by Montgomery's Inspector General Thomas J. Dagley that the nonprofit group was unable to document expenditures of about $900,000 over a two-year period.

Earlier this year, Dagley reported that his office found irregularities by the county and Centro Familia in billing practices and payments for fiscal 2007 and 2008 and that a portion of funds paid to Centro Familia 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 and has been supplying documents to the health and human services department to explain its spending as the inspector general's office continues its review.

Uma Ahluwalia, director of health and human services, has said that Centro Familia did not provide sufficient documentation for its spending and in some instances overcharged the county for personnel expenses and fringe benefits, rent and other costs. The county withheld about $20,000 last summer. In August, however, health and human services officials renewed $450,000 in contracts with Centro Familia while the reviews continued.

In a letter to county officials last summer, Torres and Centro Familia's board chairman, David H. Anderson, accused the county government of "an appearance of discrimination based on ethnic or national origin." The letter said that Centro Familia was owed "significant monies" by the county and that the investigations "create an aura of conspiracy and malfeasance that is defamatory."

Centro Familia has strong ties to county politics. The organization's accountant is Larry Rosenblum, campaign treasurer for County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and treasurer of Friends of Ike Leggett, a political fundraising committee. Board members include Lillian Cruz, an aide to Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.); Del. Anne R. Kaiser (D-Montgomery); and Theresa Cameron, former head of Montgomery's arts council.

Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), who heads the council's Education Committee, said "clearly, the inspector general found evidence that was important enough that the FBI decided to investigate." She said she was "pleased that the inspector general had stayed the course" despite questions about the office's investigations from some in the nonprofit sector and from some on the council.

Council member Nancy Navarro (D-Eastern County), who co-founded Centro Familia with Torres but broke off from the group several years ago when she ran for the school board, said the FBI probe "is a bit shocking" and "a sad day. . . . It's a big concern."

George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), head of the council's Human Services Committee, said he was reserving judgment. "The FBI ought to be allowed to do its job."

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