Urban League scandal demands further scrutiny

Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

What to do about the Buffalo Urban League and its president and CEO, Brenda McDuffie?

Something, that’s for sure.

As our Charlotte Keith first reported, and an audit released last week by Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw subsequently confirmed, the Urban League has been overcharging Erie County for services that include working with families to prevent child abuse.

To make matters worse, the Urban League retaliated against the caseworkers who helped expose the problem, firing or running off all eight of them.

To make matters even worse, Urban League officials stonewalled the comptroller’s audit and, on the eve of its release, made a frantic pitch to suppress the report altogether for fear of how it would reflect on the organization.

Well, McDuffie and Co. at least got that point right.

The audit has been submitted to the Erie County Legislature for further consideration. Left to their own devices, legislators are likely to do nothing. After all, this is a body that passes only a handful of bills a year and tinkers at the margins of the county executive’s annual proposed budget, except when money to help refugees is involved. Then, they’re all about pinching pennies.

Well, there’s a whole lot of pennies involved with the seven contracts the Urban League has with Erie County. We’re talking millions of dollar a year to provide a host of services the Department of Social Services has chosen to outsource. Mychajliw’s audit looked at just one of those contracts, for just one year. The audit found $40,000 in inflated or undocumented charges.

Whistleblowers said management attempted to bilk the county in all sorts of ways.

Charge for work of employees while they are on vacation.

Pad hours to reach revenue projections.

And, my favorite, charge the county for chance exchanges between caseworkers and clients. As in: say hello to a client at the grocery store and charge the county for 15 minutes of work.

“When you were unable to reach the family or were unable to provide the services you needed, you were told to basically embellish,” said Melissa Mattison, a former caseworker, told Investigative Post.

The whistleblowing caseworkers were troubled by this rip-off of the taxpayers. Their bosses at the Urban League were troubled by their worker’s honesty. Hence, all eight are out the door.

It’s obvious what needs to come next: an audit of all seven Urban League contracts. Given the agency’s culture of inflating bills, does anyone think it stopped at just one contract in just one year?

Someone, either the comptroller or, perhaps the district attorney, needs to dig in. And why not the DA, given that Mychajliw used the word “fraud” to describe what happened with the one contract he looked at?

There’s also the matter of McDuffie.

Does her board intend to hold her and her management team accountable? This unseemly affair reflects very poorly on the organization and the damage is all self-inflicted. So far, the only staff taken to task were the honest ones working in the trenches.

And does County Executive Mark Poloncarz intend to hold McDuffie and the Urban League accountable?

Why shouldn’t the seven contracts the Urban League holds with the county be put out to bid?

Likewise, shouldn’t McDuffie be replaced as the chairperson of the Erie County Industrial Development Agency? Poloncarz supported her appointment and is otherwise politically aligned with her.

Should someone whose agency has been found ripping off county taxpayers, retaliating against whistleblowers and stonewalling county investigators be anywhere close to the levers of power?

This entire affair raises further questions about Poloncarz’s management of the Department of Social Services, which accounts for the lion’s share of the county budget.

In July, Investigative Post reported serious problems persisted within Child Protective Services. Caseworkers were struggling under a workload that’s nearly nearly double the limit recommended by the state. As a result, Keith reported, “CPS is failing to meet state-mandated deadlines for completing preliminary assessments of abuse and neglect complaints nearly two-thirds of the time.”

Poloncarz responded by denying there’s a problem, and, as the Urban League has done, attempting to discredit the rank-and-file workers who pointed out the shortcomings.

The audit ought to heighten concerns about how good of a job the county is doing to protect vulnerable children. Investigators found many Urban League workers lacked sufficient training in, among other things, reporting claims of child abuse.

“I think it’s fairly safe to say that children and families are suffering because of the lack of training through the Buffalo Urban League,” Mychajliw said.

The audit findings, coupled with the ongoing problems at CPS, prompts me to question Poloncarz’s competency as county executive. I mean, spending on social services accounts for the lion’s share of the county budget. If you can’t properly manage the key functions of the Department of Social Services, how good of a job are you really doing?