Wednesday, December 04, 2013

The Wisner Trust - Are there missing funds from the Ceasefire New Orleans program?

Last Tuesday, November 26th, the Wisner Trust Advisory Committee met and voted to approve the Mayor's list of grant recipients for 2014.  The vote went down exactly as one would expect with LSU and Tulane going along with Mayoral appointee to the Wisner Trust Advisory Committee, Erica Beck.

The three committee members, LSU, Tulane, and the Mayor, voted to rubber stamp the grants to the recipients as a whole.  They apparently saw no need to look at the recipients, individually.

The heirs and The Salvation Army cast dissenting votes, with two of the heirs making verbal objections to the process of lumping all the recipients together.  They expressed concern that the recipients weren't being examined individually to make sure they meet the philanthropic objectives Edward Wisner intended for the trust.

Wisner Advisory Committee Meeting - Nov. 26, 2013 from Jason Berry on Vimeo.

I think most of the grant recipients the Mayor has chosen are kosher but problems arise when it comes to his pet projects.

Beck was questioned about how the City is funding three programs:  The Mayoral Fellows Program (incidentally of which Michael Sherman was a former recipient), the Ceasefire initiative and Nola For Life.  It seems as if there is some confusion as to how the money is being channeled through the Mayoral Fellows Program to the other entities.

Beck offers an explanation around the 5:40 mark (video) by stating that funds are being disbursed through the "code" named "Mayoral Fellows" and subsequently disseminated to the other two entities: "CeaseFire New Orleans" and "Nola For Life".

 At the 7:09 mark (video), Mark Peneguy (Wisner heir) questions Beck about an email from the Mayor's "Innovation Team " leader, Charles West, to Deputy Mayor Judy Reese Morse about money that was supposed to be disbursed to the Ceasefire New Orleans initiative from the Mayoral Fellows program that may not have actually made it to the Ceasefire coffers.

I'm not sure what Peneguy was referring to, exactly, but I have been looking into the Ceasefire program myself.  I've found some accounting issues regarding the program's two fiscal agents, the St. Thomas Health Center and the Urban League of New Orleans that I think need some answers.   I believe there appears to be an issue with money that was disbursed from the Wisner funds to these that may be unaccounted for.

I have three memorandums (public record) issued from the Ceasfire program director, Johnetta Pressley, spanning from February 2012 to October 2012, that provide some detail as to how the program was laid out and also highlight an issue that occurred in October of 2012 when the program was suddenly notified of a shortage of funds from their newly acquired fiscal agent, the Urban League of New Orleans:

* You can blow the images up on Google drive by double clicking the image.

February 26, 2012 memorandum about St. Thomas Health Clinic's inability to serve as a fiscal agent and the suggestion that the Urban League of New Orleans become the new fiscal agent for Ceasefire New Orleans

October 17, 2012 memorandum (draft) requesting that Deputy Mayor Judy Reese Morse sign an amendment that increases Wisner funds by $155,000 to meet a budgetary shortfall of $15,000

October 24, 2012 memorandum notifying Mayor staff that fiscal agent Urban League of New Orleans has reported a shortage of funds to meet payroll and the existing budget for Ceasefire New Orleans

From what I've been able to glean from the public records I have, the original fiscal agent for Ceasefire New Orleans was The St. Thomas Health Clinic and it appears that at least some Wisner funds were disbursed to this entity.

However, in February of 2012, the St. Thomas Health Clinic informed Johnetta Pressley that they were unable to fulfill their role as the fiscal agent.  Upon former CNO Crime Commissioner James Carter's suggestion, Ceasefire then chose the Urban League of New Orleans as their new fiscal agent replacing the St. Thomas Health Clinic.

I am not sure how funds were transferred from one entity to the other but according to the February memo, St. Thomas did disburse at least some of the funds they originally received from the city to Ceasefire employees....therefore they served as a fiscal agent in some capacity.

By October 24, 2012, as detailed in the memo, the Urban League informed Pressley that they did not have the money to make payroll for the rest of the fiscal year.  Pressley sent an email denoting this to Deputy Mayor Judy Reese Morse:

I'm trying to put this all together from random puzzle pieces I have through public records and I fully realize I don't have a complete picture...yet I'm concerned about the budget discrepancy.  In an effort to understand what happened with this discrepancy of funds, I emailed Johnetta Pressley the following questions:

- How was the St. Thomas Community Health Center originally chosen as the Fiscal Agent for Ceasefire and was this process vetted publicly?

-  Why was the St. Thomas Community Health Center not able to fulfill their duty as the "fiscal agent" after they had verbally committed?

- Were any funds, particularly Wisner Funds, transferred to the St. Thomas Community Health Center and did they make any payments to Ceasefire employees as the February 26, 2012 memorandum suggests?

- How were funds transferred from the St. Thomas Community Health Center to the Urban League of New Orleans when they took over as the new fiscal agent?

- What happened with the balance discrepancy outlined in the October 24, 2012 memo when the Urban League informed you that they were not able to meet payroll from existing funds that had been transferred to them as the fiscal agent? 

- Exactly how much money constituted the discrepancy between the City and the Urban League?  

- If there was a shortage in the funds from the Urban League to meet the payroll on October 31, 2012, was it the fault of the Urban League, the St. Thomas Community Health Center, the City of New Orleans, a budgeting mistake....what happened?

- If there was a budget shortfall, as other records I have indicate, specifically in respect to the salary of the Resources Manager position, how was the budget shortfall dealt with?  

- In an October 17, 2012 memorandum you suggested $20,000 in Wisner Funds be utilized to support the salaried position, Resources Manager, from Nov. 1, 2012 - February 28, 2013 by increasing the cap in funds in the CEA between the Urban League and the City of New Orleans through an amendment to be approved by Deputy Mayor Judy Reese Morse.  In the memo you suggest that Morse's action item is , "Approval of an amendment to the current CEA between the Urban League and the City of New Orleans to raise the cap by $20,000 to $115,000", followed by a second action item, "Approval of disbursement of $20,000 to the Urban League per the Amended CEA".  Why did you suggest the cap should be raised to $115,000 when only $20,000 was required?  Was this amendment approved by Morse and for what amount?  

According to other records I have, the amendment was executed by Deputy Mayor Judy Reese Morse and the amount requested by Pressley was disbursed.

It's also important to note that these funds were disbursed before the Wisner hearing in September of this year and without the approval of the Advisory Committee.  Also, the "amendment" was signed by a Deputy Mayor, Judy Reese Morse, not the Mayor, himself.

I sent these questions out Monday and I haven't received a response...shocking, right?

When I first started writing the Wisner story, I was told by former Mayoral Press Secretary Ryan Berni that all I had to do was ask the administration for information and they would be happy to comply in an effort to increase transparency with the Wisner grants.  I've made repeated requests that have gone unanswered since that initial commitment by Berni...I suppose we can add this one to the list.

I want to point out that I'm not even questioning the merits of the Ceasefire New Orleans program, although I could considering it was based on the Ceasefire Chicago program that has been highly criticized as being mostly ineffective and a waste of funds:

Chicago Drops CeaseFire from Anti-Violence Strategy

CeaseFire Cuts Back As City Grant Runs Out

If you have 5 hours to waste...this is a comprehensive evaluation of CeaseFire-Chicago by the Department of Justice:

Evaluation of CeaseFire-Chicago

Aside from the fact that the Wisner grant money was never designed to fund crime-fighting initiatives, I do recognize we have a problem of epidemic proportions in our city in respect to violent crime.  I wouldn't even mind money being diverted to our crime problem so much if it was actually effective.

However, diverting funds to PR campaigns while we're facing a major shortage of "boots on the ground" with NOPD, is a jagged little pill I simply can't swallow.

But hey... it's not all bad least 3 peepmeisters scored $1500 "smart phones" from the CeaseFire New Orleans program:

Jesus Homer Christ....I want to see those badass schwegcoms in action.  I just bought the Mrs. a gold iPhone that I thought was pretty amazing for a fraction of that cost so at $1500 a pop I'm assuming these suckers must have a direct line to Scotty in the transporter room.  I hope these Ceasefire Execs. join Chewbachhus and flash that bling.

Don't hold your breath on anything coming of this...City Council shirked their oversight responsibility and our MSM resources are simply waiting to repost the next press release from the Mayor's office.  At least I feel good for Ryan Berni knowing he isn't being plagiarized by on a weekly basis anymore since he left his post as the Mayor's press secretary.

Meanwhile...the beat goes one....the murders stack up....NOPD numbers dwindle...and tourism futures are so bright I have to wear shades.  


Anonymous said...

When did Michael Sherman recieve $70.000.00 from the Mayoral Fellows program?

Jason Brad Berry said...

Michael G. Sherman is a 2001 graduate of Tulane University. A Mayoral Fellow in the Marc Morial administration, he attended Georgetown University School of Law, from which he earned his J.D. in 2004. While attending law school, he was elected by the citizens of the District of Columbia as Commissioner, representing an area that encompassed the residential neighborhood surrounding Capitol Hill. Upon graduation, he joined the firm of Sullivan & Worcester, in Washington, D.C., where he worked on energy utility regulation and other matters. Immediately after Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Sherman returned to New Orleans, and represented the New Orleans City Council in their successful effort to secure emergency funding on Capitol Hill. Mr. Sherman left the security of large firm legal work in D.C. to become Vice President of Coastal States Development, a Florida-based real estate company. Now working for himself, Mr. Sherman recently opened a law practice, Sapir and Sherman, with Eddie Sapir, a former City Council President and judge, and continues to develop real estate for commercial and residential uses in Louisiana and Mississippi.

jeffrey said...

Could the phone items refer to packages of multiple actual phones? Or maybe that's the cost of the phone plus a data plan over a certain time period? There are a bunch of ways I can imagine that not being such a draw-dropping figure.

Jason Brad Berry said...

Admittedly that item is rather trivial but I don't understand why they have 13 phones above it for 800 bucks each and these three jump to 1500. Why weren't they getting a comprehensive plan and even then the most expensive Apple iPhone on the market is 849 bucks. I can't imagine what phone cost 1500.

Still, the bigger issue is what happened to the missing funds and why did they pull an extra 115k out of Wisner funds.

Anonymous said...

How is City Council not all over this?

Jason Brad Berry said...

Glowing front page profile of the Ceasefire program in the TP coming in 3.....2.....1.....

Jason Brad Berry said...

"How is City Council not all over this?"

I would encourage you to call their offices and ask them.

Anonymous said...

If the Council is not looking into this, it makes one wonder if all of them are in on it with Mitch. Worthless scum - the whole lot.

Jason Brad Berry said...

Uhhh....what? How did you glean a Jewish conspiracy out of this post?