U.S., Md. told of forgery allegation Pay document questioned by empowerment zone

July 12, 1996|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Officials overseeing Baltimore's multimillion-dollar empowerment zone effort have notified federal and state authorities about an allegation that a signature was forged to get funds to pay the salary of the executive director of a neighborhood "village center."

Empower Baltimore Management Corp. also plans to review its procedures for disbursing funds to the six neighborhood organizations, which are slated to receive $4 million of the $100 million in federal funds over the next five years.

On Tuesday, the corporation announced that Leonard Jackson Jr. had been suspended as executive director of the Self Motivated Community People's Village Center, encompassing Sandtown-Winchester and other West Baltimore neighborhoods. The suspension came after village board Chairman Noble Drew Ali said that Ali's name was forged on a request for $6,500 to pay Jackson.

The empowerment zone corporation has written Jackson, asking him to return the money. Efforts to interview him for this article yesterday were unsuccessful.

Under federal law, the empowerment zone could be forced to repay the money to the federal government if it was determined the funds were spent improperly.

It is unclear what, if any, additional controls the federal government might suggest.

"As far as I know, this hasn't happened in any of the other cities I deal with," said Douglass Austin, a Baltimore-based consultant who works as a liaison between the federal government and six cities designated as empowerment zones or federal enterprise communities, which receive more limited funds.

Notification about the allegation was made this week in letters from Diane Bell, president of the empowerment zone corporation, to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the empowerment zone program, and the Maryland Department of Human Resources, which funnels the federal funds to the empowerment zone.

The state agency will then contact the regional inspector general of its federal counterpart, the Department of Health and Human Services, which will decide whether to investigate, officials said.

Some empowerment zone officials sought to put the allegation into perspective.

Robert C. Embry Jr., acting chairman of the empowerment zone corporation, said at a board meeting yesterday that the situation shouldn't be "understated or overstated."

Board member Decatur Miller added that someone intent on falsifying a signature could probably get away with it no matter what the controls. "But not for long," he said.

Community leaders said they want to avoid harming the effort to revitalize dilapidated areas of East, West and South Baltimore.

"I hope the allegation won't have any negative impact on the programs of the empowerment zone continuing," said Ronica Houston, chief executive officer of Community Building in Partnership, which oversees Sandtown-Winchester's redevelopment.

Jackson, 48, worked as a deputy director of the partnership from October 1994 through April, Houston said. He was making $55,000 a year when he left to head the area village center in mid-April.

The village board had recommended Jackson receive $70,000 a year, but empowerment zone officials said that figure was too high. He has not received a salary and his pay was being negotiated when he was suspended July 3.

Pub Date: 7/12/96

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