An official at the state Department of Human Resources has close ties to a company that is regulated by the department and receives millions of dollars from it to operate group homes.
Elisha B. Pulivarti serves on the board of Evershine Residential Services Inc., according to both the assistant executive director and a board member for the company. Pulivarti also heads the Governor's Office on Asian-Pacific American Affairs, a $60,000-a-year job promoting Asian-American awareness. The office is part of DHR, which licenses and monitors 10 Evershine homes with 26 boys.
State regulations explicitly bar any agency employee from serving on the boards of directors of group home companies.
After The Sun raised questions yesterday, an agency spokesman said DHR Secretary Christopher J. McCabe has ordered an investigation.
"He is adamant we will not have any conflicts of interest with DHR employees, and if there is a conflict, he will instruct everyone to sever their ties to eliminate the conflict. That's what we are trying to find out," said Norris West, the spokesman.
While he works at DHR, Pulivarti "doesn't play any role at all" in the regulation of group homes, West said.
Business practices at Evershine were examined by The Sun this year as part of the newspaper's series on lax state regulation of children's group homes.
Pulivarti is friendly with Joseph Skariah, the company's executive director, and has done work for him, West said. A DHR inspector was told - but didn't confirm - during a visit to the company Tuesday that Pulivarti was a board member, West said.
Pulivarti did not return calls yesterday. A man who answered Pulivarti's phone at DHR yesterday initially identified himself as Pulivarti but, after being asked about his work for Evershine, said he was an intern. "He is not here right now," the man answering Pulivarti's phone said.
West said Pulivarti has told the department that he briefly advised the board when it was reconstituting in December but was never a member.
An Evershine director, Dorothy Shuford, said Pulivarti is a director and participated in the three board meetings that she has attended since joining the board in December, including the most recent meeting Sunday to place Skariah on leave.
"He's quiet ... but he does speak when they get to the business part and the chairman of the board asks questions and everybody gives their opinion," Shuford said in an interview Tuesday. She said board members aren't paid.
Bonnie Meeks, Evershine's assistant executive director, attended Sunday's board meeting and said Pulivarti participated as a member.
Referring to state departments that license group homes, state regulations state: "An employee of the agency may not be a member of the licensee's board of directors."
It's unclear when Pulivarti joined the Evershine board.
Meeks said Skariah told her that Pulivarti arranged the visit to Evershine in December 2003 by McCabe, who spoke at the company's Christmas party.
The state pays Evershine $104,115 a year for each of the foster children placed in its group homes.
The tax-exempt company's executive director, Skariah, expensed Caribbean cruises, luxury SUVs and meals while making $135,275 a year. Skariah has acknowledged using $24,000 in group home funds in 2002 to settle a sexual harassment complaint. His wife receives $74,813 for what current and former employees have called a light-duty job. The couple collected another $32,400 a year renting two houses to the firm.
Evershine's board is placing Skariah on leave while it examines the business practices.
Unaware of spending
Officials at DHR have said they didn't know about the spending at Evershine. The officials could not produce an inspection report filed by a former inspector while she was responsible for inspecting the company in 2003 and 2004.
Maryland spends $157 million a year on the 330 homes in the state. The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee has scheduled hearings on strengthening state oversight.
Meanwhile, DHR expects to add as many as five inspectors to its staff of eight who license and monitor the homes.
Pulivarti's official biography on the DHR Web site says he is director of public relations for Life and Hope International. Skariah founded a charity by that name, which was formed to help the poor in the United States and India but is defunct, corporate records on file with the state show.
Pulivarti, 55, of Beltsville, is active in Prince George's County political circles and the South Asian community in Maryland, according to current and former county politicians and community leaders.
Campaign contribution reports show Pulivarti donating to Republicans and Democrats, from the Republican State Central Committee of Maryland to Friends of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.