Baltimore officials suspended more than $1 million in city funds for anti-violence programs Monday after workers at a West Baltimore community center that has received taxpayer dollars were accused of operating a front for gang activities.
Federal authorities indicted 13 people on heroin distribution charges, including at least two who were employees of Communities Organized to Improve Life Inc., or COIL, a nonprofit organization that runs adult literacy programs and other outreach services, according to court records and officials.
The employees, Todd Duncan and Ronald Scott, were key players in a heroin distribution ring, and their work as youth counselors with the nonprofit group was part of a continuing effort by a notorious gang, the Black Guerrilla Family, to extend its reach and create the appearance of legitimacy, authorities allege.
Duncan is described in an affidavit supporting the indictment as a ruthless commander who controlled BGF's Baltimore-area activities.
While working with children and young men in West Baltimore, authorities say, Duncan was also dealing heroin, conducting gang "trials" and meting out punishment from an East Baltimore rowhouse.
The arrests highlight the murky realm in which some street-based gang intervention efforts operate. The groups are credited in Baltimore and other cities with helping to drive down shootings and killings. But they must work out of view of law enforcement and government to maintain street credibility, even as they accept taxpayer money. Employees must maintain connections with gang members and drug dealers.
COIL's chief executive officer, Stacy A. Smith, said in a telephone interview that she was "blindsided" by the accusations against Duncan and could not comment on the specific allegations. But she said Duncan and Scott were hired after reviews by a panel that included the police and health departments, as well as background checks.
She said hiring staffers who are ex-offenders comes with risks.
"These are the nuances you have to deal with," Smith said. "Once you're a gang member, you're always affiliated. It's a fine line they walk."
Hoping to replicate the success of similar public health-oriented programs in Chicago and Boston, Baltimore identified three neighborhoods for an initiative called Safe Streets. The city Health Department selected COIL, a group founded in 1973 that runs the Learning Bank, at 1200 W. Baltimore St., to oversee efforts in West Baltimore.
The city gave COIL $383,000 in federal grant money to hire ex-offenders and former gang members to mediate disputes and reduce shootings. But a year later, the city terminated the contract, contending that protocols were not being followed. Smith said COIL's gang intervention efforts continued, with a focus on diversion programs.
Late Monday, hours after the indictment was unsealed, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake said she was suspending funding for all Safe Streets programs "pending further review and investigation." Less than a month ago, on March 22, Rawlings-Blake announced $1 million in funding for the city's East Baltimore Safe Streets, and the Board of Estimates approved $72,000 last week to have Johns Hopkins University researchers study the program's effects.
A confidential source is quoted in court documents released Monday as saying that the East Baltimore Safe Streets program is controlled by the BGF, though no one associated with the group has been charged. Those initiatives are run by the Living Classrooms Foundation.
"Allegations contained in federal documents raise new and significant concerns about the appropriateness of the program at a former site in West Baltimore and a current site in East Baltimore," Rawlings-Blake said in a statement. "Current and future funding for all Safe Streets programs is suspended pending a complete and thorough review by a taskforce of city officials."
The city also funds a site in Cherry Hill, which will also be subject to a funding freeze, officials said.
The arrests come nearly a year after authorities indicted 24 people involved with the BGF gang — including four state prison officers and much of the gang's top leadership — who authorities said helped imprisoned gang members direct drug deals, extort other prisoners and carry out hits. Court records detail how gang members enjoyed vodka, salmon, shrimp and cigars behind bars.
After that indictment, confidential sources told members of the Drug Enforcement Administration that Duncan became the "overall commander for BGF operations throughout the Baltimore metropolitan area" and the "decision maker for BGF activities." In an affidavit filed in support of Monday's indictment, federal authorities say Duncan "works at COIL as a way of legitimizing himself in the eyes of law enforcement and the public.
"Duncan gives the appearance of working with at risk youth while maintaining his role as leader of the BGF," DEA task force officer William Nickoles wrote.