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by Mark Reutter7:45 pmAug 21, 20190

Associated Black Charities thumbs its nose at Baltimore’s comptroller

Joan Pratt says ABC refused to come before the Board of Estimates unless she removed a critical finding in an audit about the nonprofit’s supervision of the mayor’s Children and Youth Fund

Above: Associated Black Charities CEO Diane Bell-McKoy (far left) refused to talk to reporters last month after the Board of Estimates postponed the release of an audit of the Children and Youth Fund. (Fern Shen)

Already under investigation for its role in the “Healthy Holly” book scandal, Associated Black Charities was placed in the crosshairs again today by City Comptroller Joan Pratt.

Pratt publicly denounced the charity for refusing to present any documentation as to why seven low-scoring organizations had been awarded grants from the Children and Youth Fund that ABC administers.

Pratt said ABC failed to send a representative to today’s Board of Estimates meeting to answer her questions because she would not change an unfavorable finding in a recent audit of ABC’s management of the $12 million youth fund.

“I have been informed that ABC will not be present at the board to present the documentation unless the finding is changed,” Pratt told the board this morning.

“During my [24-year] tenure on the board, there hasn’t been a situation where someone was asked to come before the board and they just didn’t show up,” she told The Brew after the meeting.

But Pratt backed away from demanding sanctions against ABC after she was met with radio silence from Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Council President Brandon M. Scott.

“I knew that [disciplining] ABC wouldn’t work,” she said. Instead, she requested to the board that ABC and the audit department “get together” so that “the next audit will not be a repeat finding.”

Asked why Mayor Young appeared reluctant to question ABC’s contract with the city, Pratt said:

“He requested the audit, and he was satisfied there was no political influence or bias in the granting of the awards. That was his concern. My concern is that you can’t give out one sentence or two and say that’s sufficient documentation for a large grant award.”

“During my [24-year] tenure on the board, there hasn’t been a situation where someone was asked to come before the board and they just didn’t show up.”  – Joan Pratt.

Reached this evening, Young’s spokesman Lester Davis said he had spoken with Pratt and concluded that “she is in a good space” about ABC and the youth fund.

“She is proud of her work on the program,” Davis said. “She just wants to be in a position to point out things to make it better.”

Pratt’s accusation that ABC asked that the negative audit finding be removed was the result of a “misunderstanding,” Davis added.

Total Control

Approved by voters in 2016, the Children and Youth Fund is designed to provide grants to youth organizations that have not been able to receive government support in the past. It was proposed by Young while he was president of the City Council.

ABC has total control over the fund, creating its grant-awarding process, assembling an advisory committee, issuing award letters, negotiating contracts with grant winners, and conducting site visits to ensure that money is being used properly.

For the first tranche of funding last August, ABC was paid $1.2 million in administrative costs.

An early organization chart for the grant-making and administration of Children and Youth Fund monies. (abc-md.org)

ABC’s administration of the Children and Youth Fund includes reliance on many consultants. (abc-md.org)

An audit of the youth fund was requested by Young to make sure that the funds were being properly managed in the wake of the Pugh scandal.

The release of the audit was delayed until early August, but even before that date, Diane Bell-McKoy, ABC’s president, strenuously objected to the audit report.

On July 31, her office issued a press release that quoted Bell-McKoy as saying “in the strongest sense possible, we dispute the single audit finding that there was insufficient documentation outlining how certain grant decisions were made.”

According to McKoy, all grants were made by community reviewers who followed clear guidelines put forth by a task force and outlined in the RFP. “All funding decisions were fully documented,” she said.

Then-Mayor Catherine Pugh speaks at ABC's annual gala in 2017. (Brew file photo)

Then-mayor Catherine Pugh speaks at the Associated Black Charities annual gala in 2017. (Brew file photo)

“Absolutely, absolutely”

Reportedly dealing with a family emergency, Bell-McKoy was absent at the August 7 BOE meeting when Pratt first questioned some of the youth fund awards.

The ABC representative who appeared that day, Danielle Torain, said that “there are detailed notes on every discussion that took place” regarding grant awards.

“We had upwards of five to 10 people in the room simply for the purpose of note taking. We wanted to make sure there was no possibility of undue bias, and there were very clear notes,” she told the board.

The audit found that 19 of the grantees scored lower than 40 applicants who did not receive grants.

Of those 19 low-scoring grantees, there were seven organizations where “we could not find any documentation or notes to support” the granting of public funds, Josh Pasch, the city auditor, said.

When Pratt asked if ABC could produce notes on those seven (unnamed) grantees at today’s meeting, Torain, said, “Absolutely, absolutely.”

But when her office inquired on Monday why the notes had not yet been forthcoming, Pratt said she was informed that ABC objected to the audit finding. By that time, she said, McKoy had stopped returning phone calls.

That’s when it became clear, Pratt said, that she was was being asked to drop the audit finding in return for cooperation.

ABC is reportedly part of wide-ranging investigations of Pugh’s self-dealing underway by the U.S. attorney’s office, Maryland State Prosecutor and Baltimore Inspector General.

Last April, the nonprofit acknowledged that it accepted nearly $90,000 from five entities, including CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield and Grant Capital Management, to buy and distribute Pugh’s “Healthy Holly” books.

The sales provided the buyers with a tax write-off (and perhaps political influence), while ABC pocketed nearly $10,000 in administrative costs.

– Fern Shen contributed to this story.

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