Board of AIDS group ponders fate of chief

HERO director accused of mishandling funds

March 30, 2004|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Board members of an embattled Baltimore AIDS organization met last night to decide on the fate of its executive director but declined to announce any decision.

"We'll be issuing a statement, just not this evening," said Health Education Resource Organization board member Jeffrey Falk after the meeting, while board President Carlton R. Smith said only, "Something may come out soon."

Several agencies, including the FBI, began investigations into the finances of HERO last week after allegations arose against its executive director, Leonardo R. Ortega.

Ortega fired his deputy director, Indira Kotval, three days after she told the board two weeks ago of finding records showing he took $6,000 in bonuses over three months, paid a personal trainer with charity money and billed questionable travel expenses to HERO.

Ortega also approved a $3,000 loan to Centro de la Comunidad, an East Baltimore Latino organization where he serves as board chairman.

Some board members, including the current and former treasurers, issued a statement last week saying they had found no wrongdoing by Ortega after an internal inquiry. But other board members wanted a broader investigation and for Ortega to step down, at least temporarily, while it proceeded.

After hearing of Kotval's allegations and firing, Baltimore's health commissioner, Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, asked the FBI last week to investigate whether any of the $1.4 million in federal grants that flow through the city Health Department to HERO had been misused.

The Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations also is conducting a review of its certification of HERO under its Standards for Excellence program, which requires compliance with standards of accountability and governance.

In an interview last week, Ortega said his contract, negotiated with Smith, allowed him the bonuses and personal trainer. The current contract, in effect through next year, includes $16,000 in bonuses this year and a $122,000 salary.

Ortega also said the contract permitted him to make the loan, which he said was paid back quickly.

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