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Gov. Larry Hogan, center, at lectern, announces new initiatives to combat the statewide heroin crisis at a press conference in 2017. One of those initiatives, the Opioid Operational Command Center, issued grants criticized by state auditors in a report Wednesday.
Gov. Larry Hogan, center, at lectern, announces new initiatives to combat the statewide heroin crisis at a press conference in 2017. One of those initiatives, the Opioid Operational Command Center, issued grants criticized by state auditors in a report Wednesday. (Joshua McKerrow, staff / Capital Gazette)

State auditors are questioning a $750,000 grant awarded by a state body created to fight opioid addiction to an Eastern Shore nonprofit for the purchase of a former country club and golf course.

That grant, awarded in fiscal year 2019 but never funded, and several others were deemed “questionable” in a report released Wednesday by investigators at the Office of Legislative Audits, which launched the review after receiving a tip to the state’s fraud, waste and abuse hotline.

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The inspector general at a second agency, the state Department of Health, also reviewed the project and referred it to the Attorney General’s criminal division.

According to the grant proposal, the money was supposed to create a program using agriculture and food to provide rehabilitation to inmates on work release, students and other community members as part of the fight against opioid abuse. The grantee planned to create a “food center” at a former country club in Caroline County that included food processing, a farm-to-table restaurant, an event venue and potentially a nine-hole golf course.

The grant funds were awarded by the state Opioid Operational Command Center, a group created in 2017 to collect and analyze data on the opioid addiction and overdose crisis and coordinate training and resources to combat the problem.

The grantee is not named in the audit, but an October letter from Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to members of the federal House Energy and Commerce Committee states that a $750,000 grant was awarded by the center to support the Farming 4 Hunger Food Center in Caroline County.

Farming 4 Hunger is a Charles County-based nonprofit run by Bernie Fowler Jr., son of former state Sen. Bernie Fowler, who confirmed the audit.

The audit found the state opioid center had no written records to support its evaluation of the nonprofit, which received a significantly higher award than any other applicant in 2019. Others received $100,000 or less, the audit showed.

Additionally, the opioid command center required no evidence to support the nonprofit’s claim that it was using a “proven model that is already operating with phenomenal results in Charles County” that had helped reduce recidivism and addiction rates.

The audit noted that the nonprofit’s grant proposal said it would serve people from “regional schools," but opioid deaths in Caroline County accounted for less than 1% of the total opioid deaths in Maryland for 2018, according to the audit.

Legislative auditors were not the only group who investigated the grant. Local health department officials who were supposed to execute the deal flagged the grant for the Maryland Department of Health’s Office of Inspector General, which referred the case to the Governor’s Chief Counsel and the Attorney General.

Raquel Coombs, spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s office, said the office cannot confirm nor deny the existence of investigations.

Michael Ricci, spokesman for Hogan, did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment.

State Sen. Clarence Lam, co-chair of the Joint Audits Committee, called the audit findings “deeply disturbing.”

“There is no reason that the Opioid Operational Command Center is awarding millions of dollars of state funds without written policies or procedures when Maryland continues to face a crisis of opioid overdoses and deaths," said Lam, a Democrat representing Baltimore and Howard counties, in a statement Wednesday.

"When an agency charged with tackling such a critical public health crisis is found to have practices that call into question their integrity, it is a failure to our citizens,” Lam added.

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Andy Owen, a spokesman for the opioid command center, said the office began updating its grant procedures in February 2019 to “address concerns” related to previous grants. Written policies now include criteria for grant applications and requirements for grant eligibility among other things, he said.

“These improved policies and procedures were in the process of being implemented prior to the initiation of the audit, and they were further refined using insights provided by the auditors during the course of the process,” Owen said.

Ultimately, the command center did not fund the $750,000 grant because of the “complexity” of finishing the land purchase by the end of the 2019 fiscal year, the audit noted.

Fowler said he was told in May that the funding had been cut.

“Apparently, we shouldn’t have been able to buy a piece of property with the way this [grant] was structured,” he said.

Fowler said center officials also mentioned the audit. “I kept hearing over and over there’s an audit," he added.

The audit also flagged several other grants that were funded eventually by the center.

In 2019, the Opioid Operational Command Center awarded a $100,000 grant to an unnamed out-of-state nonprofit group that transferred almost all of the funds to a for-profit company owned by senior management of the nonprofit, according to the audit report. Neither entity was registered to do business in Maryland, the report stated.

As proposed, the grant was supposed to pay for multi-sensory educational programs on drug prevention in middle and high schools. The audit found that the daily rate established in the grant agreement was more than $1,000 higher than the nonprofit stated in its grant proposal.

Additionally, the nonprofit provided less than half of the services in the grant agreement despite receiving the full grant award, the audit stated. The nonprofit was supposed to provide two opioid education programs at 15 schools. One of the 15 schools received no programs while 14 received only one of the two required programs, according to the audit.

The audit recommended the center consult with the Attorney General about recovering money paid to the nonprofit.

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