LAWRENCE — The federal government is ordering the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council to return some of the state money that paid the six-figure salary of its former executive director, who last year admitted spending afternoons playing cards at the Elks Club on Andover Street for his last three years at the agency.
The federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) also will require GLCAC to correct "a variety of administrative shortcomings" that were uncovered during a six-month audit by the HHS Inspector General's Office that ended in October.
The audit is not scheduled to be released until March, but Christian Dame, GLCAC's interim executive director, described its findings at a meeting with GLCAC's board of directors Thursday night. Dame took over the agency after Philip Laverriere resigned March 23, four days after The Eagle-Tribune reported he was working just 15 hours a week.
"It appears we will have to return some monies to the state," Dame told the board, which he helped rebuild after more than half of its members resigned over the last year following a series of Eagle-Tribune stories about mismanagement, fraud and nepotism inside the agency. "One portion of the monies to be returned represents part of the former executive director's salary."
Two of the resignations were announced at Thursday's board meeting.
Dame said the federal government may require other refunds from GLCAC programs, but said "the amount will be quite small — perhaps considerably less than 1 percent of total GLCAC funding for the period." About 98 percent of GLCAC's $30 million budget last year came from the state and federal governments, including most or all of Laverriere's salary.
Laverriere received up to $145,000 annually in salary, bonuses and transportation allowances. He led the agency for 37 years.
Dame did not return a phone call Friday seeking to learn if he would ask Laverriere to reimburse GLCAC for the part of his salary the agency will be refunding to the state. His lawyer, Anthony DiFruscia, would not say how Laverriere would respond to the request, and offered a first public defense of Laverriere's abbreviated work days.
"The full story, part of it is that any chief executive involved with that much responsibility certainly makes his own time," DiFruscia said. "No one's accused him of any wrongdoing. There's been no mismanagement."
Dame said the operating reforms HHS will seek include a stepped-up system for monitoring employee attendance. He noted he already has established a process for reviewing time sheets filed by executive directors.
Dame said HHS also is requiring the agency to improve systems for verifying that clients do not exceed income limits for the services they receive. He did not say what caused the demand for the reform, but The Eagle-Tribune reported last year that the agency was providing federal heating subsidies to a condominium occupied by Mayor William Lantigua and his girlfriend, who have a combined income of about $150,000. The state ordered GLCAC to require the girlfriend, Lorenza Ortega, to return $500.
Brian Sullivan, a spokesman for HHS, has declined to comment on the HHS investigation. He did not return a phone call Friday.
The two board members who resigned this month are Natalie Coon, an accountant with a Haverhill firm who stepped down to avoid a conflict of interest after taking a job with the firm that audits GLCAC, and Karen Sawyer of Andover, who cited scheduling conflicts with her job.
The board Thursday also accepted two new board members — Loretta NeVille of Methuen and Nazario Esquea, a Lawrence resident who is treasurer of Casa Dominica. Just one of the board's 21 seats remains empty.
Dame has been working furiously to get the board back up to full membership, which the state Department of Housing and Community Development has required before removing the "troubled agency" designation it imposed on GLCAC last year. The designation is a first step for decertifying a community action program, which would cut off its public funding.
DHCD also demanded 40 reforms at the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council. Dame told the board he has implemented 36 of them, including tougher policies against nepotism and stronger protections for whistleblowers. He said four remain, including the improved system for monitoring attendance, and said he is hopeful the state will lift the "troubled agency" designation after the federal audit is complete in March.
Mary-Leah Assad, a spokeswoman for DHCD, said the agency is "pleased with the progress" GLCAC has made enacting the reforms, but said "there are no immediate plans to lift GLCAC's troubled agency status."
Dame also told the board that auditors expect GLCAC ended its last fiscal year on Sept. 30 with a $270,000 surplus, or .9 percent of its $30 million budget for that year.
Also last week, the board approved an evaluation of Dame's work since it hired him as interim executive director eight months ago. The board did not release the report, but the packet of documents distributed at Thursday's meeting included a personal evaluation signed by board president Thomas Perrault, addressed to "To Whom It May Concern" and printed on GLCAC stationary.
"Our situation was dire, and he has worked tirelessly...," Perrault said about the mess Dame inherited. "His message is uplifting and clear."
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