Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services president faced internal inquiry

In the weeks before his ouster as president of Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services and subsequent suicide, Michael Bernstein faced allegations of fraud, embezzlement and sexual harassment, among other charges.

The allegations came not from law enforcement agencies but in "unsigned letters" brought to the attention of Bernstein's bosses, according to an e-mail obtained by the St. Petersburg Times.

The e-mail, which Bernstein sent to Gulf Coast's directors on Oct. 11, offers new details about the fall of a man who led one of the bay area's largest nonprofit social service groups.

Those details cast doubt on the account of his departure that Gulf Coast has so far provided. And from the long and rambling e-mail, there emerges a portrait of an embattled man eager to prove his innocence.

"It is quite shameful to think that so many I felt close to have lost faith and respect for me," he wrote. "What a sad legacy."

Friday, Gulf Coast acknowledged it recently investigated Bernstein but found no evidence of illegal activity. However, he did recently repay the organization a large sum of money.

Bernstein became president of Gulf Coast in 1978 and is credited with helping grow the agency.

The organization has roughly 700 employees working in 32 counties in Florida, including the bay area. It reported revenue of nearly $33 million in 2007, the last year for which federal records are available. About half the revenue came from governments; most of the rest from public donations.

News reports this month about a contract the nonprofit had with the state Department of Education were the first public indication that Bernstein's relationship with Gulf Coast was troubled.

The organization was hired to place mentally and physically disabled people in jobs. According to state regulators, Bernstein contacted them to say an internal review had uncovered problems with the contract.

The state launched an inquiry and found that, in some instances, Gulf Coast billed the state for having found jobs for clients but could not produce adequate documentation that the placements had occurred. The review also found some clients were placed in jobs the state determined were not appropriate.

Gulf Coast was ordered to repay $132,000 to the state, which it did in mid September.

State officials, who terminated the contract Oct. 14, said most of the problems were in South Florida. The review turned up no evidence of illegal activity, though the state said that possibility could not be ruled out.

When announcing Bernstein's resignation Oct. 14, Gulf Coast spokeswoman Lisa Brock said the departure was not linked to any finding of wrongdoing on Bernstein's part.

"When an organization has had the same leadership for several years," Brock said then, "it's sometimes just time for a change."

Bernstein's e-mail of Oct. 11, however, indicates he was ordered to resign or be fired, and that the leadership of Gulf Coast declined to honor unspecified details of his contract.

"Why?" Bernstein writes. "Even if I had the financial means I just don't have the mental strength to sue."

In the e-mail, he writes that he had been subject to anonymous allegations of fraud, embezzlement and sexual harassment, though the particulars of those charges are not specified.

Those making the charges had been interviewed by a man who described himself as a former FBI investigator, according to the e-mail, and were given assurances that Bernstein would not learn their names.

Responding to written questions, Brock said Friday that the group had sought Bernstein's resignation after learning of the allegations in July. She said the agency used an investigator who promised sources anonymity.

Brock said no evidence was found to support a finding that Bernstein stole money from the organization. The agency was paying him nearly $267,000 a year in salary and benefits.

However, she said that due to an administrative error, he had mistakenly been paid his annual benefits package twice recently.

On Aug. 31, she said, Bernstein repaid Gulf Coast $108,000.

Brock said Gulf Coast had been as open as possible about the circumstances of his departure, given terms of the confidential separation agreement he had reached with the agency.

But Gulf Coast has not been open enough for Andy Steingold, mayor of Safety Harbor and a Gulf Coast board member who resigned this past week.

Steingold said he respected the agency and its work, but the board acted with too little transparency. "In light of how they operate the board," Steingold said, "it's not something I want to participate in."

Bernstein, 57, was found dead in Valdosta, Ga., on Oct. 21, a week after his resignation was announced. He died in a Super 8 hotel room from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services president faced internal inquiry 10/30/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 30, 2009 11:33pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Two in serious condition after early-morning shooting in Tampa


    Two people are in serious condition after a shooting occurred early Monday morning in Tampa, according to the Tampa Police Department.

  2. Wrong-way driver on Courtney Campbell Causeway intercepted by police, faces DUI charge

    Public Safety

    A woman driving in the wrong direction on the Courtney Campbell Causeway early Monday morning was intercepted by Tampa Police officers and faces a DUI charge.

  3. Relative 'devastated' after shooting kills 8 in Mississippi


    BROOKHAVEN, Miss. — Head in hands, his voice strained, Vincent Mitchell sat outside his little yellow home and tried to make sense of how a family dispute led to a rampage that killed eight people, including the deputy who tried to keep them safe.

    Christianna May-Kelly, center, is supported by family members as she cries after answering reporters questions outside her parents' home in Brookhaven, Miss., Sunday. May-Kelly said her parents and mother were among the people gunned down during a shooting in rural Mississippi Saturday night. [AP photo]
  4. Forecast: Sunny, clear Memorial Day ahead of increased rain chances throughout the week


    If you're planning on heading outside today for Memorial Day activities, the weather shouldn't get in the way.

    Tampa Bay's 7 day forecast. [WTSP]
  5. North Korean missile launch may be testing rivals, not technology


    SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea's latest missile test Monday may have less to do with perfecting its weapons technology than with showing U.S. and South Korean forces in the region that it can strike them at will.

    A woman watches a TV screen showing a file footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at Seoul Train Station in Seoul, South Korea, Monday,. North Korea fired a short-range ballistic missile that landed in Japan's maritime economic zone Monday, officials said, the latest in a string of test launches as the North seeks to build nuclear-tipped ICBMs that can reach the U.S. mainland. [AP Photo/Lee Jin-man]