Charges against official widen Village center leader accused of improperly signing checks

July 19, 1996|By Ronnie Greene | Ronnie Greene,SUN STAFF

New allegations of financial irregularities have been leveled against the director of one of Baltimore's neighborhood village centers, less than two weeks after he was suspended on suspicion of pocketing a forged $6,500 check.

The new charges come in resignation letters from the treasurer and vice chair of the Self Motivated Community People's Village Center -- one of six neighborhood groups created under Baltimore's federal empowerment zone project.

The $100 million rebuilding effort aims to bring to life the tattered neighborhoods of East, South and West Baltimore. In its early stages, the rebuilding effort is just beginning to spend taxpayers' money -- and is scurrying to recover from its first management miscue.

Last week, the Self Motivated Community People's Village Center suspended Executive Director Leonard Jackson Jr. on suspicion of forging a signature to get a $6,500 check -- and then depositing it in his personal bank account.

Now come broader accusations involving not only Jackson, but the board in charge of reviving the West Baltimore neighborhood.

They are spelled out in resignation letters written Monday by village center Treasurer Emma L. Middleton and Vice Chair Jennifer L. Coates. Both remain on the board, but said they could no longer remain in executive positions because of the problems they saw.

In an interview, Coates told The Sun she remains committed to revitalizing her neighborhood -- but also remains troubled by the village board's actions.

"It's just been a pattern of bad decision-making," Coates said. "The village center board is a business, it's not a community club. And it should be treated as such. You should act on behalf of your constituents."

In her letter, treasurer Middleton linked other financial irregularities to Jackson. For instance, she wrote, Jackson tried to get her signature on financial forms without giving her the chance to review the figures.

"When I refused," Middleton wrote, "he took the documents and left."

Middleton alleged that Jackson took about two months to turn over checks and bank statements for the village center "in spite of being repeatedly asked to do so." She also wrote: "Several checks have been written and signed by the executive director when he had no authority to do so."

Jackson did not return calls this week, but his attorney, L. Roland Sturm, said his client has done no wrong.

"We certainly don't feel we have anything to hide," Sturm said, declining further comment until the Empower Baltimore Management Corp. -- the corporation overseeing Baltimore's $100 million revitalization effort -- acts on the $6,500 check incident.

Coates and Middleton say many on the village center's board members didn't appear interested in resolving the $6,500 check questions.

"The board expressed an unwillingness to address the problem at hand," Coates wrote.

In her resignation letter, Coates said she was "chastised for advocating to do what is legally right. I have come to the conclusion that the moral code of conduct espoused by the majority of the board is not one that I support or wish to be a part of."

Middleton said some board members tried to hide the check episode from the Empower Baltimore Management Corp.

"When presented with this information," Middleton wrote, "some board members not only refused to act on this information, but actively sought actions to rectify it without contacting EBMC."

Middleton, in an interview, said she was troubled by "the process of how to handle the moneys." She said her resignation letter speaks for itself.

"I am resigning as treasurer effective immediately due to what I feel is insufficient accounting controls for me to perform my duties," Middleton began. "I feel that there is a consistent pattern evidenced by the actions of the executive director and the reaction of many of the board members that maintaining records necessary to comply with standards is of no consequence to them."

On Monday, the village board lifted Jackson's suspension, putting him on administrative leave instead.

The day Jackson was reinstated, Middleton and Coates resigned from their executive positions.

On Wednesday, two days after the pair resigned, the village center board held a closed session.

The focus, said center spokesman Joseph C. Studivant: Instilling tighter financial controls.

"We did meet as far as safeguards and the development of new policies," Studivant said yesterday. "I believe that [Wednesday] night was a very determined, coherent and intelligent step in terms of bringing some resolve to the matter. And we're hoping that everybody else will be as pleased and as optimistic."

But so far, some are simply dumbfounded by the sudden turn of trouble at a program meant to help the community.

"I was astounded," said Juliet Bragg, a village center board member. "I have not been able to find heads or tails about this situation. What has been going on?"

Pub Date: 7/19/96

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