Easy Come, Easy Go

After summer-long accusations of incompetence and mismanagement, the federal government has just completed its second audit in four years of Denver's Weed and Seed anti-crime program. The results have improved this time around, but the audit indicates that nearly one-fifth of the program's funds are unaccounted for, and it confirms what many have long suspected: In addition to money problems, poor communication and general confusion continue to haunt the neighborhood-based program.

The audit, conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice, the program's overseer, found $68,012 in unaccounted funds from April 1, 1994, through May 31, 1996, a period during which the federal program funneled $351,847 into Denver.

More than half of the funds in question had been sent to the Cole neighborhood. Cole Weed and Seed coordinator Bonita Brown has been criticized for receiving close to $120,000 in the last several years to fund various programs while also sitting on the board that determined who got the money. Brown declines to discuss specifics of the audit's findings, saying only, "This is a preliminary audit. It's not a complete audit. There are questions on it that need to be answered, and we are responding to that now."

Among the Cole programs, $7,554 went to a firm called The Coordinator Inc. The money, say several former Weed and Seed workers, was used to pay Coordinator owner Barbara Cox to apply for another grant, this one with the state. (Assistant U.S. Attorney Dick Weatherby says that using grant money to try to acquire other grant money is not necessarily inappropriate, though he declined to comment about this particular proposal.)

The state grant was denied; former Cole Neighborhood Partnership team president Sam Gomez says it was "declined because the grant was late--it got so hastily put together." According to the audit, there is no documentation showing exactly how Cox was paid. She could not be reached for comment.

The audit also raises questions about $2,500 that was paid to the Denver Community Credit Union. But credit union director Thom Foster says his organization was just acting as a fiscal agent for the Cole Weed and Seed office. "The only thing we are are trustees," Foster says. "Whatever you want us to do, as long as it's legal, we do it." He adds that he has not received any additional requests for information.

"It was basically a slush fund for operating expenses," Gomez says of the money paid to the credit union. "They were trying to speed up the time it took to get a check. They were also trying to infuse the credit union with some cash flow."

But the biggest question mark in the Cole neighborhood involves $40,000 awarded to Bonita Brown to run a summer youth program. The audit contends that 53 percent of the kids who participated in the program lived outside the targeted neighborhood. The Weed and Seed program does not permit such crossover, so auditors disallowed $21,000 in expenditures.

Because the money in question did help children, the federal government may decide not to ask for it back. The decision could go as high as an assistant attorney general, says a federal official connected to the audit, but when such a decision will be made is unknown.

"Things that went on are sometimes common things that happen in these programs when there's no supervision from Washington," says the official, who requests anonymity. The official notes that of sixteen Weed and Seed programs nationwide, Denver's is the only one that channels money directly to neighborhood leaders. It is also the only program that has been audited a second time.

"I wasn't totally surprised by the amount," the official adds, "but I think the city was. They had no idea it would be that high."

Gwen Koehler, director of the local Weed and Seed program, says that once the city has a chance to account for the money, the dollar figure of unaccountable funds should drop to around $3,500. "It's not fair to release preliminary findings when we can clear up those findings if the service providers have more time," says Koehler, who refused to release the audit findings to Westword. The paper obtained them from another source.

The city has until the middle of October to address the discrepancies the federal audit has pointed out and figure out a plan for accounting for them. From there it's up to the Justice Department to determine how much of the $68,000 is suitably accounted for and how much must be paid back by the city.

If the city is required to pay back the federal government, the transaction would likely take one of two paths: The city could directly reimburse the government, or the government could take the money out of next year's grant. If the government threatens to withhold next year's grant until funds are repaid, the official says, "that kind of response will get the city moving."

Koehler is confident most of the funds will be accounted for, but not everyone is convinced. "My question would be, how are they going to, after a six-month audit, come up with the receipts for these?" says Philippa Troxel, who was employed for a year in the Weed and Seed program as a health worker. "After six months, it makes no sense that they'd give them a chance to find more receipts. They had adequate time. Who's gonna believe they're real?"

Weed and Seed began in 1992 with the intent of targeting at-risk neighborhoods and pumping funds into them in order to increase both law enforcement and rehabilitative services such as drug counseling and job training ("Sowing Discontent," August 22). And while Weed and Seed has funded many successful activities, the program has been beset from the start by finger-pointing, blame-mongering and a fractured relationship between Weed and Seed officials, neighborhood leaders and community residents.

The first audit, conducted for all Weed and Seed programs in the fall of 1994, showed that there were management snafus aplenty in Denver, to the tune of $160,000 in unaccounted funds. Koehler says it took several months to whittle the figure down to $1,500.

But finding that money has done little to quell the hard feelings and accusations of continued mismanagement from all quarters, charges that prompted the Justice Department to review Denver's program again. Troxel claims partial credit for the new probe.

"The audit wouldn't have been done if it hadn't been for us," says Troxel, who left several months ago along with two colleagues. "They were going to do just a generalized audit. The fact that it was a selected audit means they were looking at specific things, and they looked at it because of us."

Several former Weed and Seed workers defend the program but criticize those who have run it. "It's a good program; a lot of good work has been done," says Rich Maez. "It's been misdirected by Gwen and Carlos [Guerra, Koehler's predecessor]. They're there to make partnerships, but they've misrepresented partnerships. They had a different agenda. And that was 'You cover me, and I'll cover you' instead of 'What's in it for the community?'"

In case after case, the current audit reveals the miscommunication and confusion that have hounded the program from the beginning. The audit breaks down the unaccounted-for funds into two groups. The majority of the funds--$38,991--were deemed "unallowable," meaning that though they were adequately documented, there are questions about how they were spent.

The rest of the money in question--$29,021--was deemed "not supported," which means that neighborhood service providers had done a poor job of keeping receipts and records or, in some cases, had kept no records at all.

Dan Mares, owner of Adolescent/Adult Treatment Specialists in the Highland neighborhood, may be the most typical example of Weed and Seed's chronic problems. He says the grant to run his program for at-risk youth was approved for $9,000--money that came out of his own pocket--but he says he was reimbursed for only $6,200. The feds have raised questions about Mares's bookkeeping, and Mares admits that he didn't keep great records because he didn't know any better.

"I have nothin' to hide from anybody," he says. "I done what was asked of me. The Weed and Seed officers didn't know what they were doing. If they told me you needed to save every receipt, that would have been a totally different thing. But they never said that."

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T.R. Witcher