Saturday, December 16, 2017
Business

Gulfcoast Legal Services director retires after critical federal audit

The executive director of Gulfcoast Legal Services has retired in the wake of a critical federal audit report that said the agency failed to properly document how it spent $753,158 in federal grants.

Lawyer John Dubrule had headed the nonprofit organization, which provides low-income Tampa Bay residents with free legal help in housing, immigration and other civil matters. His departure is the latest dustup for an agency roiled by staff turnover, budget cuts and allegations of sloppy record- and timekeeping.

Lawyer William Weller, chair of Gulfcoast's board of directors, said Friday that the organization has improved its procedures in response to the federal report.

"Gulfcoast for years has done so much good, and many times those who did good didn't write it down properly or keep their time properly," Weller said. "There was a longtime culture of 'let's just help this person and deal with the record-keeping later.' "

Although Gulfcoast has returned a "small amount" of grant money, Weller said it probably will not have to return the bulk of the funds "because they were used for their intended purpose."

In its report, the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Justice rapped Gulfcoast for failing to conduct a required audit of how it spent money from two grants it received to help victims of human trafficking and domestic violence.

"While we found no evidence of fraudulent reporting involving grant funds," the report said, "in our judgment Gulfcoast's records provide no assurance that grant funds are being paid only for grant-related activities."

Among other problems, the report said, Gulfcoast did not require its staff members to track their time. It also submitted "inaccurate financial reports" to the Justice Department offices that awarded the grants, and was slow to respond to the inspector general's "repeated requests" for information.

In his response to the report, Dubrule blamed Gulfcoast's failure to comply with grant requirements on "significant turnover," the temporary outsourcing of bookkeeping and financial reporting, and accounting software that "was not as robust as needed for efficient grant reporting."

"While we cannot undo past transgressions," he wrote, "we have put protocols in place to prevent future issues." Gulfcoast also conducted the required audit.

A 36-year veteran of Gulfcoast, Dubrule became executive director after the board fired Kathleen Mullin, a trial lawyer and TV legal analyst, in 2014 after less than a year on the job. Although Mullin had taken steps to improve Gulfcoast's record-keeping and make it easier for clients to talk to a lawyer, she alienated some staffers and angered Gulfcoast board members by assuring them — incorrectly, as it turned out — that the staff wouldn't vote to form a union.

Like some other Florida legal aid organizations, Gulfcoast used to get much of its funding from the Florida Bar Foundation and interest earned on lawyers' trust accounts. When interest rates plunged, so did the foundation's contribution, making Gulfcoast and the others more dependent on federal grants, private grants and donations.

Gulfcoast, whose budget this year is about $2.3 million, has offices in St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Bradenton and Sarasota. All will remain open, Weller said.

Contact Susan Taylor Martin [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.

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