Homestead “non-profit” owner accused of looting public funds

07/17/2014 3:17 PM

07/17/2014 3:18 PM

A Homestead woman fraudulently obtained hundreds of thousands of dollars in public grants, then kept much of the money for herself – even stiffing a blind employee for salary, authorities said Thursday.

Hilda Hall-Dennis, who ran Business Development Technology Corp., was arrested Thursday for a series of felonies, including organized scheme to defraud and grand theft.

“As so many not-for-profits struggle to provide services with limited government funding, we cannot allow someone to enrich herself at the expense of the community she was entrusted to assist,” said Miami-Dade Inspector General Mary Cagle, whose agency spearheaded the probe.

Investigators had been probing Hall-Dennis’ organization for at least two years after a long list of misconduct surfaced.

The center opened in 2003 as a “business incubator” — a place to help entrepreneurs launch new businesses in South Miami-Dade County. The center operated virtually rent-free out of a city-owned building on Civic Court in Homestead.

The group claimed to have helped 4,000 business people, but county auditors in 2010 recommended closing the center after they couldn’t find proof of any of the center’s claims. In 2011, the IRS revoked the group’s tax-exempt status after it failed to file tax returns for three straight years.

Investigators say Hall-Dennis, 49, nevertheless falsely claimed her company, also known as the Carrie P. Meek Center for Business, was a certified non-profit, allowing her to illicitly rake in over $460,000 in federal and local grants.

The center’s namesake, former U.S. Rep. Carrie P. Meek, had publicly praised Hall-Dennis’ work in the past. Meek has no official affiliation with the center, other than its name and her help in first securing the money for the center.

According to authorities, Hall-Dennis billed the county for salaries, then paid employees only a fraction of the money she received.

Hall-Dennis also submitted phone invoices and double billed the county and state for the same services, according to a press release. The state also gave Hall-Dennis money to hire a blind receptionist, but paid her only a fraction of the money she was owed, authorities say.

“Stealing from one’s own employees and the handicapped only adds another level to this crime,” said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle.

Hall-Dennis was in custody on Thursday afternoon, and court records identified no listed defense attorney.

In all, prosecutors say she stole from Miami-Dade County, the Homestead Community Redevelopment Agency and Florida’s Division of Blind Services.

The state earlier shut down the group for failing to carry the required insurance. And court records show the center left a trail of unpaid bills owed to a local bank, a payroll company and others.

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