A woman who operated a nonprofit group tasked with helping fledgling business owners flourish in Homestead pleaded guilty to stealing public grants.
Hilda Hall-Dennis, who among other acts bilked a blind employee out of much of her salary, pleaded guilty Wednesday to scheming to defraud and to identity theft. The sentence: 146 days in jail, plus nearly $33,000 in restitution.
Hall-Dennis, 50, ran a nonprofit called Business Development Technology Corp., which operated virtually rent-free out of a city-owned building in Homestead.
Her nonprofit opened in 2003 as a “business incubator” providing office space and other support for entrepreneurs launching new companies in South Miami-Dade County.
The company was better known as the Carrie P. Meek Center and received more than $460,000 in federal and local grants in recent years. The center’s namesake, former U.S. Rep. Carrie P. Meek, had no official affiliation with the center, though she had once helped secure funds for it.
The Miami-Dade Inspector General’s Office launched a two-year probe of the group for a long list of misconduct.
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.
The IRS, in 2011, revoked the group’s tax-exempt status after it failed to file tax returns for three straight years. Still, Hall-Dennis continued to rake in grants by claiming she was still a tax-exempt nonprofit.
According to prosecutors, 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.
The state also gave Hall-Dennis money to hire a blind receptionist, but she paid her only a fraction of the money she was owed, authorities say.
As part of the plea deal, Hall-Dennis must pay money to two ex-employees, Homestead’s Community Redevelopment Agency and Miami-Dade County.
As a first-time offender, Hall-Dennis received a “withhold of adjudication,” which means a conviction technically does not appear on her record.
“Any level of corruption is not going to be tolerated when it comes to the public’s trust and the public’s money,” said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle.