Sweetwater audit cites misuse of funds intended for the elderly

The "Viejitos of Sweetwater" have lunch at the Sweetwater Senior Center during a recent visit by on by Mayor Jose M. Diaz.
The "Viejitos of Sweetwater" have lunch at the Sweetwater Senior Center during a recent visit by on by Mayor Jose M. Diaz. el Nuevo Herald

Every time a group of senior citizens sat down to play a game of dominoes at the Sweetwater elderly center, the city reported the activity as an event that must be paid for by state or federal grants.

Between 2007 and 2013, the city over billed approximately $346,000 for table games, according to a recent state audit report about the use of grants allotted for senior citizen services.

“Activities such as chess and dominoes were not reimbursable because the supplies had already been purchased and were readily available for use by the seniors,” states the report by the state’s Office of Inspector General .

However, for years, the municipal administration managed to charge $73 per game per day, without having these inappropriate charges flagged by the local Alliance for Aging agency in charge of monitoring the subsidies.

Even more alarming is that the expenses inappropriately tapped were tied to funds allotted for services such as meals for the elderly. As much as $97,000 of those funds were used for the purchase of luxurious SUVs for the wife and a close friend of the former mayor of Sweetwater, Manuel “Manny” Maroño, according to the audit.

The purchase of the vehicles was first reported by América Tevé, Channel 41, at the beginning of the year.

“Our initial reaction was shock,” said Max Rothman, president of the non-profit organization Alliance for Aging. “We couldn’t imagine that a city would use the funds, which were clearly assigned for senior citizens services, on expenses so far removed from the intent of the grants.”

After the news report, Alliance contacted state authorities who widened an investigation and finally determined that between 2006 and 2013, the city government managed in “an inappropriate manner” about $986,000 in state and federal funds.

The misuse of public money is one in a series of alleged irregularities revealed last year after Maroño, who was mayor for almost a decade, was arrested in August in a separate federal case of public corruption. The former mayor is serving a three-year sentence behind bars.

The inappropriate use of the funds could now cost the city almost $1 million.

Meanwhile, Alliance — the agency in charge of overseeing the grants — has withheld about $700,000 that Sweetwater should have received this year and the city has had to use municipal funds to pay for services provided to the elderly.

Rothman and Barbara Suarez, the director of contracts for Alliance, said the city may be charged thousands of dollars to make up for the $986,000 used inappropriately.

In a video interview in Spanish with el Nuevo Herald, Mayor Josè M. Díaz said the charge would be unjust, claiming the agency should take part of the blame for not doing its job.

“The fault also lies with Alliance because they didn’t know how to take care of each dollar,” said Díaz. “I think it’s unfair to pay an agency that for eight years said that everything was fine. This indicates that there was no supervision.”

“If we end up having to reimburse the money, we are expecting to be able to negotiate some sort of payment plan,” added Diaz, who was a city commissioner for 12 years before becoming Mayor after Maroño’s arrest. “Sweetwater's taxpayers didn't benefit from this money and the people who did benefit are not being held accountable. I'm disappointed with this report.”

Among the inappropriate expenses Sweetwater made, according to the audit:

▪ $240,858 in over billing for meals.

▪ $207,979 in alleged administrative fees and bonuses, some of which went to employees close to the former mayor such as his wife and her friend.

Jennifer Muñoz-Maroño and Johanna Rubio — both of whom work for the city — received $6,500 and $6,000, respectively, and got their hands on brand new cars paid for with the $97,356 intended for food for the elderly.

Muñoz- Maroño, former special projects director for the city, was signaled by the audit report as being the person in charge of making financial decisions at the elderly center. She acquired a Ford Explorer SUV that she later switched for a 2014 Chevrolet Tahoe. Rubio, the human resources director, drove a new Ford Focus and a year later got a 2014 Chevrolet Tahoe.

During an interview with an auditor, Muñoz-Maroño said she wasn’t aware that the approval of Alliance was required to buy equipment such as vehicles. She also explained that former Mayor Maroño, her husband, was the one who ordered the purchase of the cars, even though his name is never mentioned in the report.

According to the audit, Muñoz-Maroño responded: “The previous mayor made the decision to purchase the two Tahoes because funding was apparently available. ...Once the decision was made…the mayor went to the City Commission and the city commissioners gave the final approval.”

The audit report doesn’t specify that Muñoz-Maroño was already driving her Tahoe when the proposal to buy it was taken to the commission.

The invoices for the vehicles are dated July 24th, 2013. Two weeks later, Manny Maroño was arrested by the FBI and the new mayor presented a request before the commissioners to approve the purchases on Sept. 6.

“Jennifer [Muñoz-Maroño] requested the white Tahoe because she needed a vehicle with a large space in the trunk,” according to the report. “She used the Tahoe to transport supplies to the senior center.”

Rubio, meanwhile, was assigned the black Tahoe because as the Director of Human Resources, she handled payroll at the center and trained the center’s employees.

Following the report of the vehicle purchase, Mayor Díaz took back Rubio’s car. Muñoz-Maroño was transferred to another department and no longer drives the white Tahoe.

Several Sweetwater employees who were interviewed by auditors, including Muñoz-Maroño, said that the rules concerning the use of grants funds weren’t clear.

Robert Herrada, who was the official director of the Senior Center, said that he didn’t actually make any decisions about the finances of the center and added that the lack of monitoring on behalf of Alliance allowed the irregularities to take place.

“There was a complete absence from Alliance. They only came once a year,” said Herrada. “Alliance had everything loose, there was no communication, no profound auditing.”

Suarez, Alliance’s supervisor of contracts, said that the agency uses the standard fund monitoring system used by the State of Florida's Department of Elder Affairs, which requires samples of three months’ worth of expenses per year. Suarez added that the budget reports don’t break down every single expense and that it would have been practically impossible to detect the purchases of the vehicles since the Sweetwater administration never reported them.

“The purchase of those vehicles was not permitted. In fact, whatever surplus there was should have been reported to Alliance,” said Suarez, whose agency supervises more than 30 contracts in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.

The state’s Inspector General's report mentions the hiring of a forensic audit company and the need to preserve evidence for a potential fraud case. However, it’s not clear what agency would handle a criminal investigation, if one is launched.

Although some of the funds were used for inappropriate purchases, administrative fees and bonuses, the investigation doesn’t specify where a chunk of the money obtained through over billing of food, billiard, chess or domino games ended up.

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