A south suburban mayor's taxpayer-funded nonprofit has been suspended from state and county grant programs over questions about its finances and accounting, the Tribune has learned.
In addition, the Illinois attorney general's office has started an investigation into the Commission on Economic Opportunity, the job-training nonprofit directed by Ford Heights Mayor Charles Griffin.
Griffin said investigators have been poring through the nonprofit's records and interviewing employees, asking about wrongdoing, but he said the probe is nothing but a "witch hunt" and "political BS."
The nonprofit has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in salaries and cars to Griffin and other executives, and the board charged with watching the purse includes Griffin's family members and political supporters, records show. No criminal charges or lawsuits have been brought by the state.
The Tribune obtained audit information, letters, grant applications and other documents about the nonprofit from Cook County and through an open records request. CEO also provided some financial records upon request.
For years, Griffin has drawn more than $75,000 in annual pay as program director for the group, which until last year brought in nearly $500,000 annually in county and state dollars, primarily for job-training efforts.
Investigators have subpoenaed records from Ford Heights and the nonprofit, according to Griffin. He said one target of the investigation was money received by the nonprofit through the Put Illinois to Work program, a massive influx of federal and later state dollars that allowed his organization to provide administrative services for 700 workers hired by various employers in 2010, some of whom were interviewed by investigators.
Griffin said workers told him they were questioned by investigators about whether the mayor asked for a kickback in order to participate in the program.
"For them to just sabotage my personal integrity and my character was totally, totally unfair," he said. "They're going around the community asking, 'Did the mayor shake you down for money?'"
Griffin described the investigation as a "conspiracy" to shutter minority-run jobs programs.
"I'm not going to jail," said Griffin, 55. "Not at my age. I'm not about to defraud anybody out of anything."
The nonprofit was founded in 1990, and Griffin was brought on part time in 1992, long before he became mayor in 2009. The mayor and his supporters say CEO has helped train thousands of people to use computers and work in building trades.
During the past couple of years, though, records show that Cook County and state grant regulators started asking more questions about how the money was being spent, leading to an increasingly intensive series of audits and demands for records showing where the money was going.
Illinois suspended CEO from one of its grant programs in November 2010 after finding "widespread deficiencies" with its financial management and accounting practices, said a spokeswoman for the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
The nonprofit was suspended from Cook County's job-grant program last year after it failed to address questions about how money was spent, said Cook County Works director Karin Norington-Reaves.
The nonprofit alleges that Cook County still owes it $500,000 for services rendered under a grant. County officials confirmed that the nonprofit still is owed some job grant money, but they said it's not $500,000.
Griffin said CEO no longer gets public money but is keeping afloat with $200,000 from a private donor he declined to identify.
Family on group's board
Records and interviews show the nonprofit's board has been stocked with Griffin's family. The nonprofit also kept some of Griffin's political allies on its payroll, including a former trustee who was forced off the Village Board in April after being convicted on felony drug charges and now works as a supervisor in Ford Heights' Public Works Department.
CEO's executive director is Mary Matthews, a friend of Griffin's. She is the nonprofit's highest-paid employee at roughly $85,000 a year, records show. Both Matthews and Griffin declined to address the nature of their relationship, with Griffin calling such questions "irrelevant."
The nonprofit used at least $14,800 to pay Griffin and Matthews for cars, according to a 2011 Cook County audit's findings. Matthews said the board owed her $10,000 for previous travel expenses. When she decided to buy a Lexus from a Highland Park dealership, she asked the CEO board to cut a $10,000 check directly to the dealership instead of to her, she said.
She said Griffin did the same, with his $4,800 check going to a Las Vegas Acura dealership, records show.
"How can we steal money that's owed to us?" Matthews said.
At nearly the same time, the board paid Matthews $22,500 for unused sick and vacation time, an audit found. Monitors said the nonprofit declined to provide documents to support the sick- and vacation-time expenses.
For about the last 10 years, the nonprofit was based at Matthews' Maywood home, according to records and interviews. Matthews decided to start working from Ford Heights after auditors questioned the work arrangements at her home, she said.
Among the other financial arrangements at CEO was a $250,000 line of credit that Griffin and Matthews took out in their names for the nonprofit. A Cook County audit found the nonprofit had improperly used grant money to pay interest on the loan, but Matthews said that was "a lie."
With no money coming in from Cook County or the state, the two said First Midwest Bank is allowing them to service their debt by paying only the interest.
"For them to turn one or two isolated incidents into a pool of corruption is asinine — it's ridiculous," Griffin said. "Every dime is accounted for."
The Tribune visited the nonprofit's offices in Ford Heights. Tucked into a run-down senior center, the administrative office was packed with desks and computers for staff. On the other side of town, the nonprofit has a welding training program attached to the town's public works garage. The nonprofit also has a computer center in town.
CEO spent its own money to refurbish the public works building, Griffin said, as well as a nearby community center. He said the nonprofit spent more than $20,000 on the projects, with some of the construction work and dollars going to Jimmy Viverette, the former Ford Heights trustee who pleaded guilty last September to a cocaine possession charge.
Viverette also was paid about $5,000 by CEO in 2010 through the Put Illinois to Work grant, according to the nonprofit's records. His wife now is president of CEO's board. Attempts to reach her were unsuccessful.
The nonprofit also had on staff one of Griffin's campaign workers, records show. CEO paid Kelvin Shaw, secretary of Griffin's re-election fund, more than $8,000 in 2010, CEO records show. Before being named to Griffin's campaign, Shaw was paid at least $84,000 by CEO over three years to work as a case manager, according to IRS records.
Joe Sherman, a CEO employment specialist and president of Ford Heights School District 169, was also once a Griffin political staffer.
Family members who took positions on CEO's unpaid board include Griffin's brother Frederick Griffin, nephew Marvin Griffin Jr. and cousin Henry Drake, board president for Bloom Township High School District 206.
But Mayor Griffin said board members were selected because they understood the needs of the community.
"There's no nepotism," he said. "It's a board that has the best interests of the community at hand."
'They can't get any answers'
Investigators from Cook County and at least two state agencies have gone through CEO's books, said criminal defense attorney Phillip Turner, who is representing the nonprofit.
"We're trying to figure out what they have allegedly done wrong," he said. "They can't get any answers from anybody about what this is about.
"No one has told them what they have allegedly done that is improper."
The attorney general's investigation comes on the heels of Griffin's years-long effort to bring a casino to Ford Heights. A spokeswoman confirmed that the office is investigating the nonprofit but declined to comment further.
The town said it has developers and land lined up and has gained some political support in the region. Gambling expansion legislation sent to Gov. Pat Quinn sets aside a casino license for the south suburbs but ultimately leaves it up to regulators to pick the specific location.
Griffin said he just hopes to see the debt repaid that he says Cook County owes, and the investigation concluded.
"I'm a little bitter about it," he said. "They just about destroyed my life with this crap."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun