The leaders of an embattled, publicly funded Liberty City youth center say they’re rebuilding trust now that they’ve emerged from the cloud of an investigation into allegations an executive lined his pockets with money intended for needy children.
The Miami-Dade Office of the Inspector General recently closed its probe of the Belafonte TACOLCY Center without pursuing action or charges against the center or former CEO Taj Anton Brown, who vehemently denies wrongdoing. The inquiry wrapped up last month after more than a year of controversy surrounding the non-profit center’s shaky finances and Brown’s expenditure of thousands of agency dollars on rental cars, gasoline and hotel rooms.
TACOLCY’s internal conflicts led to questions about the future of the 48-year-old agency, which provides academic, sports and social services from a headquarters off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. But while Special Agent Jennifer Chirolis found that Brown did spend TACOLCY money on himself — a claim the former CEO disputes — the probe was quietly closed last month and the county and The Children’s Trust recommitted more than $500,000 to TACOLCY programs.
“We’re just trying to move ahead and redefine who we are as an agency and get back to what we were doing in the past,” said interim CEO Horace Roberts. “We’ve been here 48 years. And we’ve got to get back to what made us last so long.”
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Brown, meanwhile, is defending himself after remaining silent for months during the inspector general’s investigation. He says he is the victim of a baseless withchunt, though he did repay the center for nearly $8,500 in expenses before resigning in July.
“It is preposterous to suggest I misused any dollars while serving as CEO of the Belafonte TACOLCY Center,” Brown wrote in an email to The Herald. “Surely, if there were any grounds on which the Miami-Dade County Office of the Inspector General could justify the time, energy and extensive public dollars it used to hostilely pursue me for more than a year, it would have brought charges.”
The controversy surrounding Brown and TACOLCY — an acronym for The Advisory Committee of Liberty City Youth — dates back to around 2013, when Brown, now 35, was tapped to take over as CEO. Brown, who came to Miami from the northeast to help establish a Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School program at the center, says the agency was cash-strapped and he was tasked with downsizing the center’s staff, cutting costs and finding new sources of income.
He says that led to internal conflict with some staffers and supporters of the center’s former CEO. Soon, allegations emerged that TACOLCY was in the red, unable to pay its vendors’ bills. Then someone filed a whistleblower complaint, alleging that Brown had spent as much as $15,000 in agency funds on personal expenses.
The board investigated, and in August of 2013 Brown agreed — he says “voluntarily” — to repay about $8,500, most of it tied to the use of a rental car he says was used for work and a board-approved loan. When the board narrowly voted to retain him as CEO, deciding that Brown had simply “used poor judgment,” someone filed a complaint with the Inspector General.
Brown and his replacement, Roberts, say the probe and public accusations further hurt TACOLCY by making supporters wary. The agency’s largest backer, The Children’s Trust, began poring over receipts while Special Agent Chirolis questioned board members.
After more than a year, Chirolis filed a Sept. 2 memo recommending that the inspector general’s office close its probe due to the finding that funds from Miami-Dade County and Children’s Trust had not been abused. She wrote that Brown had indeed spent money on himself, but the funds involved were from private donations and sports program fees. She did not delve into the agency’s financial standing, but said steps had been taken to shore up the center’s spending practices.
“At the point we got this investigation the [TACOLCY] board had already conducted their investigation and pretty much agreed he [Brown] could do what he did and that there were some monies that did need to be reimbursed. It’s my understanding they believed he had the authority and in some cases may not have been 100 percent clear in all the policies,” said Marie Perikles, assistant legal counsel for the Inspector General’s Office. “That being the case, looking at it from our investigative stance, we didn’t really see how we could prove criminal intent.”
Brown, who remains in Miami-Dade, said all his expenses at question were done above board and with the full knowledge of the board. He blamed the probe on former chairwoman Anne E. Manning, who resigned when the board chose to retain him, and said the investigation cost TACOLCY at least $50,000 in legal and other expenses.
“I am so very glad that this charade, led by a disgruntled and bitter Anne E. Manning, is finally over,” Brown wrote, adding that he was driving his rental car while living for a time with Manning, and parked it at her house.
Manning responded by denying she’d contacted the inspector general, and saying Brown openly admitted to “misusing” public funds, hence his agreement to repay the money.
“He was in charge of an organization to help the youth and he was using funds for his own personal gains,” she said.
Despite the bitterness of the feud — at one point an outside group clamored for Brown’s ouster — his work at TACOLCY was applauded by the board when he resigned. Roberts, the new interim CEO, says TACOLCY is on stronger footing now, something even the Concerned Citizens for Preservation of TACOLCY believe may be true.
“I think they will survive under supervision,” said group spokeswoman Bettye Stokeling.
The county and Children’s Trust also say the center is in good standing with their agencies, which provide more than $500,000 for after-school, health and parenting programs.
“We are satisfied with the outcome of the Inspector General’s report and will continue to closely monitor Belafonte Tacolcy’s fiscal and administrative progress,” Charles Auslander, President and CEO of The Children’s Trust, said in a statement.
Roberts downplayed the extent of the center’s financial instability, though he acknowledged that TACOLCY is paying down debt and at one point struggled to pay its vendors. He says TACOLCY is regaining its footing.
“We’re more stable now than we’ve been in the past. Financial debt, yeah, we were at a point where there were some vendors weren’t getting paid. Whatever the reason was, I have no idea. But right now we’re paying people,” said Roberts. “We’re catching up to what we have to do.”