BY DUNCAN OSBORNE | From 2006 through 2009, Lisa Winters, then the executive director of the Bronx Community Pride Center, used $338,674 of the non-profit’s money to pay for personal expenses, including $15,953 for her dog walker, $12,000 for meals, $9,604 for pet supplies, and $1,884 for “purchases at liquor stores,” according to a 2012 report from the city’s Department of Investigation (DOI).
That report “discovered a lack of board oversight and control over Winters,” the DOI concluded. The daughter of Michelle Lopez, then the board chair, stayed in Winters’ home “for some time during 2008.” Winters took the daughter on a cruise that the agency purchased to auction off at a fundraiser.
Former and current employees, both anonymously and named, told board members that Winters was stealing and had been drunk at work, but Lopez, who declined to comment, dismissed some of these complaints when Bill Goeren, another board member, brought them to her attention saying the allegations were “unfounded” and the employee “had an issue with Winters,” the DOI wrote.
In fairness to the board, Winters took steps to hide her actions. She had the agency’s bank statements sent to her home. When the board asked for copies, she refused to turn them over. Winters told agency staff that all communications with the board had to go through her and any employee who did not comply would be fired.
The board fired Winters in 2010 and reported her actions to the city. The Bronx district attorney was already watching Winters. On June 26 of this year, she was arrested and charged with 23 counts of falsifying business records and one grand larceny count. Her attorney, Ilona Coleman, did not respond to a call seeking comment. Bronx Pride, as the agency is commonly known, is not alone.
In 2007, Michael Roberson took over Brooklyn’s People of Color in Crisis (POCC), an AIDS group. A federal audit concluded that from July 1, 2007 through June 30, 2008, he spent just under $80,000 on personal travel, hotels, dining out, clothes, gym memberships, and cash transfers to friends.
Bronx Pride closed its doors earlier this year and POCC was forced to close in 2008.
“Clearly, the boards had issues is one way to look at it,” said Marcus S. Owens, a partner with Caplin & Drysdale. a law firm with offices in Washington, DC and New York City. “It appears in these cases that the board members could have done more than they did.”
Owens is the former director of the non-profit organizations division of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). He noted that thieves tend to act in secret.
“When you have embezzlement, sometimes discovering that is not easy,” he said. “Embezzlers often take pains to cover their tracks.”
Boards should have members, outside consultants, or both who can assist them in unearthing wrongdoing.
“I’d be willing to bet that probably there was no outside accounting firm doing audits,” Owens said. “Often that will pick up weaknesses of internal controls.”
The responsibilities of boards of directors fall under two broad headings — they must protect an agency’s money and they must manage the agency.
“They have to make sure that not only the monies are being put into the programs, they have to be sure that the right people are being brought in,” said Lindsay J.K. Nichols, the communications director at GuideStar, the leading source of non-profit information. Board members are usually asked to raise money as well.
“That is typically the case and that is something certainly we recommend, but it’s not only fundraising,” Nichols said.
Antonio Centeno joined the Bronx Pride board in September of 2010 after Winters was terminated. The agency had debts of roughly $300,000 on a budget of roughly $1 million.
“When I came on, I came on to try and salvage the organization,” Centeno said at the July 21 Bronx Pride celebration that was produced this year by an ad hoc committee. “There was a lot to do.”
The agency was struggling and trying to raise “unrestricted funds” as opposed to the government funds that are used for specific programs and that made up most of its annual budget.
When Republicans took over the House in 2010, they eliminated member items and Bronx Pride lost $250,000 in annual support from Congressman Jose Serrano, a Bronx Democrat.
“That started really hurting us,” Centeno said. “By losing that contract now we didn’t have enough just to make it.”
The agency delivered a range of services to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Bronx residents and it mounted the Bronx Pride event. The ad hoc committee pulled together half of the $5,000 needed for city permits. Peter C. Frank, a ad hoc committee member, said losing the agency was “a shame.” It left unanswered questions.
“I don’t know what kind of fiscal controls were in place,” he said at the July 21 event. The committee is vowing to resurrect Bronx Pride.
“Hopefully, by next year there will be a new community center in place,” Frank said. Should it open, the new center will be a “membership-based organization” with open board meetings and more financial oversight.
“I would make sure that all employee fiscal expenditures would have to be reviewed or approved by an officer of the group,” Frank said.