The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has suspended about $2 million in further payments to the D.C. Coalition for the Homeless in the wake of allegations of financial improprieties and beatings of residents by staff members at the group's Anacostia shelter.
Wayne Stanton, administrator of the HHS family support administration, said the suspension of the funds, which were part of a $3.7 million grant given to the coalition last fall to house the homeless, was prompted by the coalition's failure to account fully for the money it had received.
"It has been reported to me that the coalition has not been making regular reports," Stanton said. "We would certainly hold up the remainder $2 million until we have reports on a regular basis on what had been happening to the $1.7 million."
The decision, which followed a meeting yesterday by the Reagan administration's top officials on homelessness, grew out of concern about alleged assaults and reports that the D.C. police and the FBI are investigating the possible improper diversion of federal money to coalition officials and others, according an informed federal source.
Elisabeth Huguenin, president of the coalition, in sharply disputing Stanton's statement, said the coalition had accounted for its spending and had filed the required reports with the federal government. The suspension, she said, could have "a tremendous impact in the sense that there is no way we can operate if they stop giving us funds."
Huguenin has said if there was any misuse of funds, it was done by individuals acting without the approval of the coalition.
The grant was given to the private advocacy group to establish an emergency shelter in Anacostia, which is scheduled to close April 30, and set up smaller, permanent shelters around the city. Huguenin has said the group has purchased six sites for development as shelters.
The coalition has fired an employe who was arrested last week on a charge of beating a shelter resident with a baseball bat. Huguenin said the alleged assault was an isolated incident. Police have said they are aware of other alleged assaults at the shelter.
It was also learned yesterday that the FBI and police are investigating payments of more than $9,000 in city emergency assistance funds to D.C. police Officer Vernell R. Tanner, which were made around the time Tanner was negotiating to lease shelter facilities to the coalition, according to city officials.
Dennis Bethea, the city's former chief of the office of emergency shelter and support services and a former coalition board member, approved three payments totaling $9,081 to Tanner, according to city officials. Bethea resigned from his city post in January, and later from the coalition, after he acknowledged receiving $1,000 from another person doing business with the coalition.
Bethea, who has previously described the $1,000 as a loan that he repaid, said yesterday that the emergency assistance payments were proper. Tanner said he qualified for the emergency assistance payments and that they were unrelated to his dealings with the coalition.
The investigation of the $9,000 in emergency assistance payments followed the discovery that Bethea had received $1,000 from a coalition contractor, according to David Rivers, director of the D.C. Department of Human Services.
Rivers said his department had notified the police internal affairs unit, which joined DHS in investigating the circumstances surrounding the contractor payment and the emergency assistance payments.
The emergency payments were made from a special department account set up to bypass the city's centralized financial management system to make quick payments for housing, utilities and other needs of city residents caught in financial crises. Rivers said that in 1985 the department disbursed more than $5 million from the account. Audrey Rowe, D.C. commissioner of social services, said Bethea -- acting in his capacity as head of the emergency shelter and support services agency -- authorized the department to issue three checks in September and October 1985 to cover mortgage payments Tanner owed.
Rowe said she raised questions about the payments after learning that at the time Tanner was applying for emergency assistance he was purchasing real estate to lease to the coalition and appeared to have financial resources that might have disqualifed him for the payments. The coalition paid $21,000 to Tanner in October as an advance payment for rent to operate a shelter in a Northwest building that Tanner had a contract to buy but did not own.
Tanner said he qualified for the emergency assistance payments because he was facing imminent foreclosure on his home.
The suspension of the federal grant to the coalition was suggested on Sunday by Mitch Snyder, head of a rival homeless advocacy group, who said the allegations of beatings and financial irregularities showed the coalition was incapable of managing homeless shelters. Stanton said the federal decision was unrelated to the request of Snyder, whose group, the Community for Creative Non-Violence, has clashed with the coalition over care of the city's homeless.