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A Times Editorial

A charity's credibility

Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services is a private, nonprofit agency, but it receives millions in tax dollars to provide social services to people in need across a wide swath of Florida. And that makes its lack of forthrightness during a recent troubled stretch disturbing.

Gulf Coast owes taxpayers and its many private donors full disclosure, in good times and in bad. Instead, its poor handling of the recent crisis gives the impression that it dances around the truth.

Starting in early October, information about the agency's problems seeped out in dribs and drabs, sometimes in conflict with the facts. The Pinellas-based agency hired a Tampa public relations firm to do its talking, as if it were trying to duck accountability. While the PR firm was publicly minimizing the problems and claiming there was no impropriety, the reality was a lot had gone awry inside the agency.

President Michael Bernstein, who ran Gulf Coast for 31 years, was fighting several claims of sexual harassment and anonymous allegations of fraud and embezzlement. The agency had paid $25,000 in 2008 to settle one harassment claim. Bernstein had an attorney and said he had taken a polygraph test.

Also, the agency had been forced to pay back $132,000 of a $1.2 million contract with the state Department of Education to find jobs for disabled people. But the state canceled the entire contract after Gulf Coast couldn't document that clients actually got the jobs. Gulf Coast's chief financial officer resigned, and two employees were fired.

In addition, Bernstein was overpaid for his benefits and returned $108,000 to the agency in August. Gulf Coast also was investigating whether he used agency resources to repair his home. This hardly sounds like business as usual.

Yet when Bernstein resigned last month, the PR firm said it was not because of any impropriety but merely "time for a change." However, Bernstein, in a rambling and defensive e-mail to board members, said he had been told to resign or be fired. A week later, he committed suicide in a Valdosta, Ga., motel room. It was only after he took his own life and more questions were raised about why that some of the blanks were filled in.

During those months of upheaval, where was Gulf Coast's board of directors? Clearly, not in charge. A roster of board members lists 32 names, but some members seldom attended meetings. And full board meetings typically were low-key affairs, with Bernstein touting the agency's work and the board rubber-stamping his agenda. It appears that general board members were kept out of the loop, which, combined with their own passivity, resulted in insufficient oversight. Board members of nonprofits have fiduciary duties and should not be content to have their names just decorate the letterhead. Their personal credibility is at stake as well.

If there is any good news out of Gulf Coast it is that the agency has hired Ray Gadd as interim president. Gadd, formerly assistant superintendent of Pasco County schools, is known for his leadership abilities and, most importantly, his openness. On just his second day as interim president, Gadd released a memo with additional information about the agency's problems.

For more than four decades, Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services has provided hope and help to people with all sorts of needs. Its success is reflected in its growth — 700 employees, programs in 32 counties, 50,000 people served each year. Its work has never been more important than in this economic recession. But to reassure its supporters and be worthy of the money it receives, Gulf Coast must come clean about its internal problems, answer questions honestly and make transparency an agency priority.

A charity's credibility 11/12/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 12, 2009 5:56pm]
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