More ex-workers cite irregularities at D.C. AIDS nonprofit

By Debbie Cenziper
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 13, 2010; B01

Three former employees of a troubled nonprofit agency that was awarded more than $1 million in District AIDS funding say their boss routinely doctored pay stubs and other records to draw money from city government.

They said they discovered the inconsistencies during a turbulent stint last year at Hill's Community Residential Support Services, which had been collecting city money to house women with HIV since 2004. The former employees also said the program lacked staff, food, therapy and support services, forcing ailing boarders to fend for themselves even as the city was cutting checks to pay for their care.

"I was there for 3 1/2 months," said former Hill's Community program director William Kelly. "It felt like years."

In October, The Washington Post detailed a string of problems at the program, including chronic staff turnover, poor building conditions, double-billing for salaries and questionable expenses for such things as jewelry, flowers and suede gloves. Former supervisor Anita Boardley told The Post at the time that the head of Hill's Community, Marilyn Hill, had billed the city for nonexistent employees, creating records at a Staples store in Maryland.

Since then, Kelly and two other former Hill's employees, counselor Carolyn McSwain and program assistant Lakisha Goldsberry, have stepped forward to provide The Post with new details about the program, which has recently closed. A fourth former employee, AIDS advocate Raymond S. Blanks, also described the lack of services, saying, "It was just a tragedy. Those women were really left in the wilderness without a paddle."

Hill attributed the allegations to disgruntled employees. She said she worked hard to maintain a well-run program and never falsified records or skirted the law.

"I've done my best with all of the clients who have come in and out of my facility, nothing but the best," said Hill, speaking publicly for the first time since her program closed. "I have never done anything wrong. It's just not who I am."

Kelly, who has a master's degree in social work, said he and his colleagues began to question the bills at Hill's Community soon after they were hired in late 2008, about the time the program received a $300,000 grant from the D.C. Health Department's HIV/AIDS Administration to provide beds and support services for eight women at a house on Warder Street Northwest.

One budget showed Hill had earmarked $126,000 from the grant to cover salaries. But Kelly and his colleagues said employees were paid irregularly, if at all.

Kelly said Hill would give him paychecks to issue to the staff but demand that employees not cash them. "There was no money to cover the checks," he said.

He said Hill needed the checks to prove to the city that she had paid her employees; she would submit copies to the HIV/AIDS Administration for reimbursement. Kelly, McSwain and Goldsberry provided several of the uncashed checks to The Post. Kelly said Hill would eventually pay her staff with money orders.

But Kelly, McSwain and Goldsberry said they are still owed money for past work. They also said the pay stubs that Hill issued to the staff were bogus, with randomly calculated tax deductions.

Records show Hill billed the city to cover the cost of medical insurance and other employee benefits, with one budget showing an annual cost of $13,000. But Kelly said that Hill did not provide any benefits to the staff.

Hill's Community also drew down city money to cover the taxes that the program was supposed to pay to the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue on behalf of employees, records show.

But the tax office has no record of Hill's Community under the employee identification number on the W-2 forms that Hill issued to employees in 2008. Hill's has a different identification number registered at the tax office, but city officials said they would have no way of linking that number to Hill's employees, which means the city was unable to give credit for any taxes that Hill might have paid on her staff's behalf.

City and federal officials by law cannot disclose whether Hill ever paid withholding taxes.

On the W-2 forms, obtained by The Post, Hill noted that she had applied for a tax identification number from the city. City officials say they have no record of any application.

The concerns were documented early last year by HIV/AIDS Administration monitors, who found that the W-2 forms that Hill had distributed to employees "didn't appear to be authentic."

'People got paid'

Hill would not comment about specific allegations but said that the W-2 forms probably contained a "typo." She acknowledged that employees were often paid late, but said that payments were eventually made.

"If I fell short in paying things late, that's what happened," she said. "But people got paid."

Blanks, who ran the program for several months after Kelly left in the spring, said he had no knowledge of falsified records, although he said that he, too, is still owed money from Hill.

"She was overwhelmed by her obligations," Blanks said. "I don't know what happened, but she seemed to have not managed her finances very effectively."

Kelly, McSwain and Goldsberry noted other problems at Hill's Community.

Invoices obtained by The Post show Hill billed the city for expenses at supermarkets and other stores. But Kelly and his colleagues said the house rarely had food or supplies. McSwain said she brought in pot pies and spaghetti when the women had nothing to eat for dinner.

The former employees also cited a lack of therapy and support services. Blanks called the gaps in services "astonishing."

"There was no real programming going on," he said.

Goldsberry cited a string of consultants hired with city AIDS money, including an accountant who she said could only be reached by e-mail even though the accountant was supposed to work regularly with Goldsberry on payroll.

"I never heard her voice and never saw her face," Goldsberry said. "Everything had to be done through e-mail. Everything."

One of Hill's consultants was Howard Mabry, records show. Mabry had run his own nonprofit until FBI investigators determined the group had overbilled District government by more than $110,000 in 2005 and 2006 for services for at-risk teenagers, court records show. The case was settled early last year when Mabry's nonprofit repaid the money. Mabry was not charged.

Kelly said Mabry was supposed to help restructure Hill's Community. "That never happened," Kelly said.

Mabry did not return calls seeking comment.

The program, meanwhile, was inundated by unpaid bills, Kelly said.

One laboratory that provided drug-testing to Hill's clients submitted a $3,630 bill to the nonprofit in late 2008, noting that most of the money was past-due. .

"We will no longer test your clients until we receive payment!" the lab's director wrote on the bill, which was provided to The Post by Kelly.

$20,000 owed to landlord

Hill also wasn't paying the rent for the house on Warder Street, although she was billing the city to cover the costs, records show. By August, Hill owed her landlord $20,000 in late rent payments and fees.

Beginning in 2008, HIV/AIDS Administration monitors chronicled the lack of therapy, food and staff, late rent payments and delays in payments to employees. They found that medications for boarders had not been monitored and that an alley cat without vaccination records had been brought into the house to address a "mouse problem."

Yet Hill's Community continued to receive support from the city until September, when the HIV/AIDS Administration stopped funding the program. All told, the nonprofit drew down $218,000, two-thirds of the grant.

Kelly and his colleagues question why the city didn't step in.

"We laid everything out to [city monitors]," Goldsberry said. "They acted as if they were appalled."

"But nothing happened," McSwain said.

An HIV/AIDS Administration official declined to comment, referring questions to D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles, who launched an investigation of troubled AIDS groups after the Post's series in the fall.

Nickles said the U.S. attorney's office and the D.C. inspector general are assisting in the investigation. "Without revealing any specifics, we have intensified the inquiry" in recent weeks, Nickles said.

The inspector general's office has also launched an audit of Hill's Community to investigate allegations of waste and mismanagement, said Deputy Inspector General Austin Andersen.

Hill's estranged husband, Sherman Hill, had also run a troubled AIDS nonprofit program. That program, Our Children Inc., was awarded more than $500,000 from the HIV/AIDS Administration in 2005 and 2006. After the inspector general's office could find no evidence that he was operating an AIDS group, the city terminated the grant but never pursued repayment.

Researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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