Urban League hits back at whistleblowers
The Buffalo Urban League, accused of submitting inflated bills for social services to Erie County, is retaliating against whistleblowers and impeding an investigation by the county comptroller, numerous sources have told Investigative Post.
Some of these sources said whistleblowers have nevertheless provided investigators with evidence of “blatantly fraudulent billing” that buttresses their original claims that the Urban League was bilking the county.
They’ve provided the comptroller documents purporting to show, among other things, 15 instances of double-billing and a one-day bill from a single employee that claimed 170 hours of work, sources said.
Despite public statements to the contrary, internal records show that senior Urban League staff acknowledged problems with the agency’s billing methods at least a month before employees asked the comptroller to investigate. Staff have since been told to change the way they bill for handling certain kinds of paperwork.
Susan Looby, one of the seven whistleblowers who signed a letter asking the comptroller to investigate in November, has since been fired – she says, in retaliation.
“They fired me and made me an example,” she told Investigative Post.
Three other social workers who signed the letter told Investigative Post they have been intimidated and threatened by Urban League administrators. One of them, Melissa Mattison, who resigned in November, has filed a complaint against the organization with the state Division of Human Rights.
Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw would not discuss what his staff is uncovering in their ongoing investigation. But he did acknowledge that the review is taking longer than expected, in part because of the Urban League’s refusal to hand over certain documents.
“If the Urban League has nothing to hide, they should pretty much hand over anything and everything,” he said. “If push comes to shove, we will issue subpoenas for these documents.”
This story is based on interviews with five current and former employees, two dozen internal emails, a tape recording of a staff meeting, a letter sent to the president of the National Urban league, and documents contained in a complaint filed with the State Division of Human Rights.
Buffalo Urban League representatives did not respond to numerous interview requests. They did issue a brief statement, saying they “fully expect the process to confirm that nothing improper occurred.”
Investigative Post reported last November that the comptroller was beginning a review of the Urban League’s contract for preventive services after seven social workers sent a signed letter outlining their concerns.
The employees expressed “extreme concern” that the organization was failing to live up to its contractual obligations with Erie County – and failing the troubled families it’s tasked with helping. The whistleblowers are caseworkers who provide counselling and support to families referred by the county because they are at risk of having their children taken away.
The letter alleged that on Aug. 29, the Urban League added five hours of billing to the majority of cases for work the whistleblowers say was never done.
Other concerns mentioned in the letter include under-staffing and failing to train staff to the standards outlined in the contract or securely storing confidential client information.
The letter also said employees were encouraged to “bill creatively.” Some of those who signed the letter said they were told to charge the county for chance meetings with clients, like running into them at church or the grocery store and exchanging greetings.
The county pays the Urban League nearly $1.1 million for the program, including a $65,000 increase effective in July as part of the county’s plan to reduce a backlog of cases in Child Protective Services. The Urban League was one of only three preventive services providers granted an increase.
The agency has seven county contracts in total.
Retaliation against whistleblowers
Of the seven caseworkers who signed the letter, two have since resigned, one has been fired, and at least one other is looking for a new job.
“When the bad billing came up, everything just broke open,” said Looby, the caseworker who was fired.
“The Buffalo Urban League administration’s motto of ‘If you don’t like it, leave,’ has left me feeling completely disheartened and disillusioned,” she wrote in a January email to National Urban League President Marc Morial.
She also wrote Morial that, during a Dec. 22 meeting, Brenda McDuffie, president and CEO of the Buffalo Urban League, told her the seven caseworkers who signed the letter had “no integrity,” “lied about her,” and “tarnished the reputation of the Buffalo Urban League.”
Melissa Mattison, another employee who signed the letter and who has since resigned, wrote “I am being treated unfairly for raising concerns over questionable billing” in an October email to the agency’s human resources coordinator.
“I feel that for months I have been targeted and singled out,” Mattison wrote in an email to McDuffie on Nov. 3. “Recently I brought to [her supervisor’s] attention a concern with billing and since that time I have been singled out and harassed.”
Mattison resigned a week later.
Two other Urban League employees who signed the letter told Investigative Post they were intimidated and threatened by Urban League administrators. They spoke on the condition they were not named.
After a staff meeting in early December, employees said job listings for other social work agencies were posted on a bulletin board in the main office area.
“The message was fairly clear that we should begin looking for other employment,” Looby said.
When the review was announced on Nov. 25, Mychajliw said he expected it to be completed in “several weeks – perhaps longer.”
Three months later, investigators have only just begun conducting interviews.
Indeed, the “entrance conference” – the initial meeting between the organization and auditors from the comptroller’s office – did not take place until Dec. 15, more than a month after the employees sent their letter to the comptroller.
Reasons for the delay include the Urban League’s refusal to release documents requested by the comptroller and the agency’s insistence that its lawyers sit in on interviews with current employees, according to Mychajliw.
He said his office is still negotiating with the agency on that point, but acknowledged that employees would be more likely to speak freely if Urban League lawyers were not there.
“It’s very difficult for a whistleblower or someone who wants to give information to do so in a forthcoming manner with a lawyer or their boss present,” he said.
“Blatantly fraudulent billing”
On February 4, Looby and other caseworkers gave the comptroller records to buttress claims they made in their original letter. Looby described the records as evidence of “blatantly fraudulent billing.”
These new records, according to sources, show:
- A total of 433.5 hours billed for work purportedly performed on Aug. 29 by three supervisors.
- At least 15 cases in which the Urban League charged for 10 hours of work not performed.
- Hours billed in Looby’s name while she said she was visiting her son in Colorado.
Mattison, the social worker who resigned in November, told Investigative Post one reason for the excessive hours cited above is that the Urban League added five hours of billing to cases she handled before submitting them to the county for payment.
“The county was charged for work that didn’t happen,” she said.
McDuffie, in her few comments about the controversy, has maintained her agency’s billing practices have been proper.
“We are all certain that contractual requirements were being appropriately met,” she wrote to her staff in an email sent the day the comptroller’s review was announced.
Internal records, however, tell a different story.
In an October meeting, Michelle Simpson McKinnon, the Urban League’s Vice President for Programs, thanked Mattison for bringing “the billing issue” to her attention and said “it was clear that the matter required investigation,” according to staff meeting minutes.
“After I reviewed the records … it was determined that in the future, billing would not be handled in that manner,” Simpson McKinnon said.
And since the review began, Urban League administrators have told staff to make some changes in the way they bill, employees told Investigative Post. For example, caseworkers were told in December to no longer charge the county for 15 minutes of time each time they file client records.
Reputation at stake
McDuffie, whose 2012 compensation totalled $102,444, has refused to publicly comment on the ongoing investigation. But she told staff in a meeting on Jan. 30, which was recorded and shared with Investigative Post: “None of you know the amount of time I have spent on this…it has affected the reputation of the Urban League across the country.”
“I am literally on the phone at least five hours a day dealing with this, every day, dealing with answering a question I can’t answer.”
The stakes are high for the Urban League.
Mychajliw has said that if problems are found in the preventive services contract, the agency’s other county contracts could come under scrutiny as well.
Revenue from service contracts accounted for more than 80 percent of the Urban League’s $3.7 million revenue, according to its most recent 990 filing with the IRS.