Montgomery challenged payments to Centro Familia but let contract issue languish

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 18, 2010

The walls were painted, the office space spruced up, computers purchased and new carpeting laid down. When the bills came due, Montgomery County gave Centro Familia $51,000 to pay for the work done at the nonprofit's offices at First Baptist Church of Wheaton.

But there were some problems.

County officials say its contract with Centro Familia required that the work be done at another Wheaton site, on Amherst Avenue, and that computers were not part of the deal. Not to mention, the church where the work was done is slated to be torn down.

But if anyone at County Executive Isiah Leggett's Department of General Services noticed the discrepancies when the payments were made last year, nothing was done about it.

Montgomery officials began taking action in the winter, around the same time that independent Inspector General Thomas J. Dagley, as part of a broader look into county spending, raised potential problems with the contract.

In February, David Dise, head of General Services, sent a letter to Centro Familia and its executive director, Pilar Torres, challenging the payments and threatening to demand reimbursement. He asked the nonprofit group, which ran a bilingual child-care program and trained home day-care providers, to explain why the renovations were made on leased space at the church instead of at a warehouse a few blocks away that the group had planned to buy. And he questioned the outlay for computers, which he said should not have been part of the renovation payments. In an interview, he said it had been a mistake for his staff to pay for the computers.

"The work . . . combined with your recent relocation . . . lead us to conclude that funds were used to remodel office space for administrative space rather than the creation or expansion of a bilingual daycare facility," Dise wrote in the letter to Centro Familia and Torres.

An immediate reply was requested, but none came.

County real estate officials apparently did not pursue the matter until a few weeks ago, when they again tried to contact Centro Familia.

This time, they reached Torres. She told them that she had not received Dise's letter and reiterated that last week in an e-mail responding to questions from The Washington Post.

But by then, it was too late. Centro Familia was out of business in everything but name. Its training program for home day-care providers had been handed off to another nonprofit, and the bilingual day care at the church was shutting down.

Monitoring faulted

When the county paid Centro Familia, which has received at least $2.3 million in county funds since 2005, the group was already under well-publicized scrutiny by the county Health and Human Services Department, the independent inspector general, and the FBI. The Health and Human Services Department determined in November that Centro Familia wrongly billed the county last year for $85,000, an amount recently reduced to $60,000 and still under negotiation.

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