Seven of the 15 board members of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Montgomery County resigned last week in protest over questions about the group's finances.
The resignations are the latest sign of turmoil in the publicly subsidized organization, founded six years ago by Hispanic business leaders to expand opportunities for the county's growing number of Hispanic entrepreneurs.
Since July, a finance oversight committee consisting of current and former board members -- three of whom are certified public accountants -- has been trying to assess the group's financial condition. The committee members said they were not able to obtain the necessary documents from chamber President Carmen Ortiz Larsen.
On Oct. 17, the committee issued a report based on a review of the group's bank statements from Sept. 2, 2003, through July 15, concluding that Larsen approved payments of more than $15,000 to her company, Aquas Inc., an information technology services firm in Chevy Chase, and to one of her employees. The report said she did so without authorization from the board. The report further recommended that Larsen step down as president and repay the money.
Larsen, who was re-elected to a one-year term as president at an Oct. 19 membership meeting, denies wrongdoing. She said she cooperated with the four-member committee, which was led by her opponent in the two-way race for board president, Alma Preciado.
"I have been bearing the brunt of the load of this chamber for the past year and a half, and suddenly everybody has amnesia," Larsen wrote in an Oct. 14 e-mail to the finance oversight committee. "My responsibility was to make sure that the organization was viable and that it thrived, and I did that."
Larsen said the board turned her down when she asked for an independent audit. She said she will make another request. "We obviously have some administrative issues we have to deal with," said Larsen in an interview. "We're going to deal with them and move on with the business of the chamber."
Larsen said the four payments to Aquas, totaling $11,250, and the four payments to Aquas employee Julio Parro, totaling $4,380, were for administrative work that she and her employees performed for the chamber, such as maintaining the organization's financial records.
Larsen said the previous board of directors had agreed that she be compensated for doing staff work for the chamber. She said the oral agreement was recorded in the board's minutes, but she could not provide a copy because the former board secretary could not locate the records. Larsen estimated that her company has provided $60,000 in in-kind contributions to the chamber, not including her time.
The chamber's bylaws stipulate that officers are volunteers who serve without compensation. They can be reimbursed for expenses. Any expenses of more than $500 require the signature of the president and the treasurer. However, the checks made out to Aquas and the employee had only Larsen's signature, finance oversight committee members said. Larsen said she didn't obtain another signature because the group had no treasurer at the time.
However, at least two former board members said they didn't recall approving any compensation for Larsen's company or her employees. The immediate past president, Carlos A. Scandiffio, wrote in an Oct. 8 letter to the finance oversight committee: "I cannot recall a single meeting or discussion -- both formal and casual -- where the subject of compensating my successor was brought forth for consideration. As such, I would like to state with absolute certainty that I have neither considered nor approved any type of compensation for my successor."
Maribel Torres-Pinero, a chamber founder who served on the board with Scandiffio and was a member of the finance oversight committee, said she also didn't recall the board ever discussing compensation for Larsen.
The chamber made the bulk of its payments to Aquas shortly after receiving a county grant for about $12,600 in September 2003, bank records show. The grant was to reimburse operating expenses of the Hispanic Business Foundation, a sister organization that helps Hispanic business owners secure government contracting work and hands out scholarships to students.
The foundation submits its expenses to the chamber, which applies for reimbursement from the county department of economic development. The county pays the chamber, which is supposed to pass the money to the foundation. In the case of the $12,600, the chamber did not turn the money over to the foundation for eight months, executive director James McDonald said.
The county department of economic development gave the chamber a total of $32,000 in grants between Sept. 2, 2003, and July 15. McDonald said that as of July, the foundation has received the entire amount.
Because documentation accompanied the chamber's reimbursement request, "we are comfortable with where our money is going," economic development spokesman Joseph Shapiro said.