TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) — As Floridians dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in 2017, relief funds were misused by the director of a nonprofit organization that had a state contract to work with people with disabilities, according to an inspector general report.
An investigation by the state Department of Education’s inspector general’s office found that the former executive director of the Florida Independent Living Council — a nonprofit organization that assists the state agency’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and Division of Blind Services — misappropriated the bulk of $35,000 in donations in January 2018.READ MORE: Second-Largest Solar Roof In South Florida Capable Of Providing 100 Percent Of Energy Needs For Building
The probe, which was completed in August 2018 but has not been previously reported, found the council’s former executive director James Baker spent $15,710 on “administrative costs” despite telling donors the money would be used to buy and deliver food and supplies to people with disabilities.
Baker also spent $10,000 to underwrite former FILC board member Ernie Martinez’s salary at Push to Open, a separate nonprofit owned by Martinez that helps people with disabilities, according to the report.
“Less than $7,000 of the $35,000 was actually spent on food and supplies for individuals with disabilities as originally agreed upon,” investigators found.
Baker made a plea for donations on September 2017, just a week after Irma made its second landfall, telling potential donors that FILC would distribute aid to Centers for Independent Living, which are community-based agencies that help people with disabilities get peer support and find jobs.
South Carolina-based nonprofit Portlight Strategies Inc. contributed $35,000 in donations, which Baker spent without documenting expenses or seeking approval from FILC’s board of directors, according to the report.
“Baker designated himself to serve as the FILC representative to assist in the response efforts following the 2017 hurricanes, and in doing so, Baker violated FILC’s fiscal policy and operated outside of FILC’s policy,” the report found.
In addition to misappropriating the funds, investigators also found Baker inappropriately handled the delivery of approximately 20 generators, which were another donation from Portlight.
Portlight claimed it shipped about two dozen generators to FILC but had no specific accounting for the actual number, the report said.
However, according to the report, Baker picked up 18 of the 20 generators and delivered them to independent-living centers across Florida. One of the generators was given to former FILC board member Julie Shaw for her personal use because she did not have power at her home, investigators found.READ MORE: 'That's Past History': Ponzi Scheme Victim Norman Braman On Death Of Bernie Madoff
The report noted Shaw “felt that taking the generators was not right and gave the generator to a family that had children with disabilities.”
The FILC board of directors fired Baker in January 2018, stemming from his handling of the Portlight donations.
Baker admitted to investigators he made mistakes, but said “there was no plan or discussion on how to handle hurricane relief,” according to the report. He also told investigators he did not know donations were considered income for the program.
“If it is, then I did something wrong, but I didn’t do it intentionally,” Baker told investigators.
During the inspector general inquiry, investigators sought a legal opinion from the education department’s lawyers, who determined that donated funds qualified as program income.
When interviewed by investigators, Baker said he did not tell board members every time donations were received, partly because he was in “crisis mode” in the wake of the hurricane and it “did not occur to him” to do so.
Baker also justified giving money to Martinez because he was providing hurricane aid to individuals in South Florida.
“Martinez stated that individuals with disabilities that were impacted by the hurricanes were not getting the help they needed, and things were not being handled properly by the state,” investigators wrote in the 41-page report.
Martinez told investigators he used some of the Portlight funds to pay ambulance fees and hotel expenses for Puerto Rican evacuees. However, investigators noted Martinez was not responsive to their requests for documentation of the expenditures.
Since the investigation, Baker, Martinez and Shaw are no longer affiliated with FILC. The council, however, continues to function independently under the state’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and the Division of Blind Services. Its current state contract runs through September 2020.MORE NEWS: Vaccination Sites Ready For Influx After Johnson & Johnson Vaccine Paused
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