Financial controls planned at center Review prompted by issuance of disputed check

July 20, 1996|By Ronnie Greene | Ronnie Greene,SUN STAFF

One check, one controversy.

At a West Baltimore village center, set up under the city's $100 million empowerment zone project to revive neighborhoods and generate economic rebirth, the questions are coming more rapidly than the progress.

They focus on Leonard Jackson Jr., the center's executive director, who board officials say forged the chairman's signature to obtain a $6,500 check issued from the public till.

Jackson disputes the charges, and his lawyers call the allegation "trivial." But Jackson remains on administrative leave as executive director of the Self Motivated Community People's Village Center -- and questions persist.

The timing couldn't have been worse: The $6,500 was the first check to filter to his neighborhood center from the management corporation overseeing the rebuilding project.

Now comes the question:

Does the episode serve merely as a wake-up call -- or a sign of trouble ahead?

The consensus at Jackson's village center: It's a wake-up call.

"We'll put all those pieces together, and get it behind us," said Judson Hughes, a member of the village center board. "And move forward."

The board will gather next week to decide how to respond to the incident. It plans to propose financial controls.

"We want our village center to be operated as a well-oiled machine," said Joseph C. Studivant, the spokesman. "We anticipate having a meeting in which the board members come to collective agreement on our position with respect to the financial safeguards and other matters with respect to our good standing."

The village center's proposals for tighter controls -- as well as Jackson's fate -- ultimately will be considered by the Empower Baltimore Management Corp. That organization is running the rebuilding project, while six so-called village centers -- Jackson's included -- are given a share of the federal money and a say in how their neighborhoods are rebuilt.

This year, the Self Motivated center is slated to receive $200,000 in public money.

Still, questions remain -- beyond the $6,500 check -- for the West Baltimore village center.

This week, the treasurer and vice chairwoman resigned, saying they were troubled by the board's handling of financial matters.

Treasurer Emma L. Middleton alleged Jackson wrote checks "when he had no authority to do so" from a separate fund bankrolled by community contributions. And she said Jackson tried to make her sign financial forms as treasurer without giving her a chance to review the figures.

Jackson's lawyers say Middleton and the vice chairwoman, Jennifer L. Coates, are trying to "blow such matters out of proportion." They say Jackson deserves credit as the "pivotal person" in creating the village center.

Jackson has declined requests for comment while the management corporation decides his fate.

Why did he get the $6,500?

To pay himself a salary to which he felt entitled while serving as executive director of the center, according to Jackson's lawyer.

"The money went where everybody knew it was going -- and that was to pay his bills," Jackson's lawyer, L. Roland Sturm, said yesterday. "Almost everybody understood he needed to be paid, because people can't go on for two months without being paid. And the specific purpose of the drawdown was to pay him."

Declining further comment, Sturm and attorney George P. Adams issued a statement to The Sun saying the allegations against Jackson "are not substantive and are trivial in nature." Further, they assert: "For certain, there was no forged $6,500 check."

L Another question persists: Will Jackson pay back the $6,500?

It was the way Jackson dipped into the public money that ruffled feathers -- reportedly forging the signature of Village Center Chairman Noble Drew-Ali in a June 18 letter seeking the money from Empower Baltimore.

Citing the letter requesting the $6,500, Empower Baltimore chief financial officer Steven M. Davis wrote to Jackson July 9: "We have now been informed by the chairperson and board of directors that the letter did not come from Mr. Drew-Ali, was not authorized by the board of directors and that the signature on the letter was not that of Noble Drew-Ali.

"We hereby request a return of the $6,500 to EBMC immediately. Thank you for your cooperation."

Yesterday, 10 days later, Jackson had yet to pay the money back, according to his lawyer and a spokesman for the corporation.

Pub Date: 7/20/96

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