Other nonprofit to take over Centro Familia's operation

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Montgomery County has decided to transfer $450,000 in contracts with Centro Familia, a Wheaton nonprofit group whose spending practices have been under scrutiny by the county and the FBI, to a larger county nonprofit group with broad experience managing millions of dollars in government funds.

Uma Ahluwalia, head of the county's Department of Health and Human Services, confirmed Tuesday that Family Services Inc. will take over the financial operations of Centro Familia. Centro Familia's bilingual preschool and training for home day-care providers will continue to operate at its Wheaton facilities.

The move places Centro Familia, which has an annual budget of about $700,000, under the wing of a 100-year-old organization that has an annual budget of about $12 million. Family Services, affiliated with the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Foundation in Baltimore, operates a range of programs, including psychiatric treatment and early childhood education.

Ahluwalia said in an interview that the takeover by the Gaithersburg-based Family Services came at the request of Centro Familia's board and its executive director, Pilar Torres. Ahluwalia said that the two organizations must work out details.

"This is a management change," said David H. Anderson, chairman of Centro Familia's board. He said it was not clear whether Torres would stay on long term but that nothing has been decided about her future. "I think we have done the best we could do. Ultimately, it is good for the county," he said. "Centro Familia struggled to grow under the cloud of suspicion."

Torres did not respond to requests for comment. In a letter to county officials last summer, Torres and 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."

County Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), chairman of the council's Health and Human Services Committee, said Tuesday that the transfer "seems like a good idea." He said council staff members, briefed by Ahluwalia, "have been assured" that the programs will continue in their current location.

"It's important that the services are ongoing," Leventhal said. He said his committee would examine the arrangement in greater detail this spring.

County Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), who chairs the council's Education Committee, said she was concerned about the timing of the takeover by Family Services, coming after County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) submitted his budget proposal.

"There is a question mark in my mind as to the validity of having one nonprofit find its way underneath the umbrella of another nonprofit agency without any vetting," she said. "Taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent."

The county, which has been negotiating with Centro Familia over $85,000 in disputed spending, recently reduced the amount to about $64,000 after Centro Familia provided missing documentation about leases, Ahluwalia said.

Centro Familia's spending practices came under scrutiny after reports last year by county Inspector General Thomas J. Dagley that the group was unable to document expenditures of about $900,000 over a two-year period.

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