Clara White Mission | The Jaxson

City failed in oversight of grants to Clara White Mission: Inspector General report

Published on July 3, 2024 at 11:56 am

On the Clara White Mission website, you’ll find advertisements for job training, like culinary arts, and janitorial programs, just one of the many ways the Clara White Mission is trying to reduce homelessness in Jacksonville.

But in a report released Monday by the Office of Inspector General, investigators write the organization did not provide vocational training from 2019 until April of this year. Clara White Mission lawyers said the COVID pandemic disrupted their culinary arts programs.

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A recently released 12-page OIG report looked at how the Clara White Mission operated, and how the city oversaw grants to the group. The Clara White Mission is one of the most popular nonprofits in the River City and has been headed by City Council member Ju’Coby Pittman for more than 30 years.

The Office of the Inspector General opened the investigation into Clara White Mission after five of the six executive board members abruptly resigned in 2021 and accused Pittman of a lack of transparency, raising policy and procedural concerns.

“The sad thing about this inspector general coming out with this report. This is a incredibly important organization that helps the underserved here in Jacksonville. And if anything about the report is misread by the public or donors or whatnot, that’s going to be very harmful to that organization,” Clara White Mission lawyer Curtis Fallgatter said.

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According to the OIG report, between 2018 and 2023, the Clara White Mission received 11 city grants totaling more than $3.6 million. Grants that the city is supposed to oversee.

Investigators looked at how the organization tracks its “Feeding the Homeless Initiative” and found:

  • Data showed that anywhere between 1 and 831 meals were served each day, but methods for tracking meal recipients are insufficient and did not coincide with methods described in the grant proposals
  • On several occasions, investigators monitored the mission’s headquarters during mealtimes and didn’t see large numbers of people waiting to be served

The OIG also said the mission overbilled the Federal Department of Veterans Affairs by more than $95,000.

“It was an innocent oversight, and it’s one the Clara White Mission had already taken care of,” Fallgatter said. “They dealt with the Department of Veterans Affairs, and Veterans Affairs understood it was a mistake. It was an accident, and they were working through a repayment plan. So, there is nothing that the inspector general did to discover that we didn’t already deal with and the inspector general threw it in the report. Why?”

Fallgatter blames the alleged inadequate oversight of the grant money on the city of Jacksonville, saying disgruntled employees made false allegations, leading to an FBI investigation, which was closed in 2023 without any disposition.

City officials who oversee grant programs responded to the OIG with a letter that read in part: “An effort is underway to review, revise, and revamp all its Internal Standard Operating Procedures in order to strengthen them by ensuring that they are clear and accurate.”

A spokesperson for Mayor Donna Deegan also said her administration is undertaking a thorough review of processes currently in place to improve oversight and accountability in the awarding of grants.

Fallgater said he doesn’t want the public to lose faith in the Clara White Mission.

“As far as we know, our organization has complied,” he said. “We’ve been doing grants for decades. So we’ve been in full compliance. As far as we’re concerned, the city was getting the right kind of records, we were certainly giving them to him. So I don’t know if they need to revamp it or not. Maybe they misplaced some records. Apparently, there’s some records he couldn’t find.”

Pittman also issued a lengthy statement that reads, in part: “As we get through this hurdle that the OIG has unfairly caused our organization, due to the internal processes of the Division of Grants and Compliances that they acknowledged, the Clara White Mission remains committed to feeding the hungry in our community, ensuring that no one is turned away, and upholding the integrity of our services.”

Pittman also stated that as a council member, she is going to file legislation to create additional checks and balances for the city office that oversees grants.

See Pittman’s full response to the report below:

“For over a Century the White Mission has been committed to the highest standards of service in fulfilling its mission to support the homeless, low-income, and veterans in our community, including a commitment to transparency, and accountability in that process. We appreciate the Office of the Inspector General’s efforts to review the management of grants awarded to our organization. Unfortunately, their office has been unfair in communicating to the Clara White Mission in addressing any concerns until this report was released. However, it is essential to clarify some key points and inaccuracies raised in the report.

1. Oversight and Documentation: The report highlights significant gaps in the

city’s oversight and documentation processes. Clara White Mission has consistently provided the required information and documentation to the city and OIG. The discrepancies noted in the report stem from the City Division of Grants & Compliance’s failure to accurately record and maintain proper records of its oversight activities and may indicate a failure of the department to accurately file and maintain public records to the mission and perhaps other non-profits. The OIG made a report to the City Council Finance Committee a month ago and shared the internal issues publicly.

2. Meal Distribution and Bagged Lunch Program: Clara White Mission has been dedicated to serving meals to those in need, including both morning hot meals/bagged lunches.

The Clara White Mission maintains daily data on the number of individuals served, generated through HMIS entries. While the Mission provides an additional bag lunch to each individual receiving meal service, the bag lunches are not reported as a part of our meal delivery total.

The Clara White Mission does not require that individuals disclose names to receive services if they are unwilling or unable to do so. We will never turn away a hungry individual because they don’t provide identification information. This information is stated in our grant application and our methodology for meals counts is included in our reporting to the City. Accurate and effective expenditure of grants and taxpayer money is of primary importance to Clara White,

3. Vocational Training: The mission developed its vocational training program in 2003. This program was established to provide job training and employment opportunities to the underserved by equipping them with valuable skills for the food and hospitality industry with successful outcomes. During COVID-19, culinary training at the Mission was suspended for safety reasons, a situation faced by many organizations and non-profits. Clara White Mission resumed this program in April 2024 and is now continuing to provide valuable training in culinary arts. These temporary changes were reported when they occurred. We resumed operations as soon as it was safe and feasible, and as funding permitted.

4. Veterans Assistance Program: The overbilling identified by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs was an unintentional error. Clara White Mission has been proactive in addressing this issue and is making repayments as required. We remain committed to serving our Veterans with integrity and diligence. The VA information request from the OIG had no relationship to the City grants review being conducted. This issue was resolved approximately 11 months ago. The VA determined there to be no intentional misuse, but a misinterpretation of cost allocation controls. This matter is completely unrelated to the COJ investigation of its grants and compliance process. The Clara White Mission continues with the repayment process assigned by the VA.

5. Internal Auditing- At Clara White Mission, our commitment to transparency and accountability extends to rigorous internal oversights. Clara White Mission administrative staff conduct oversight of internal processes to ensure accurate management of all funds and compliance with grant requirements. In addition to internal monitoring, we submit regular reports as required, and the agency has an annual audit conducted by an Independent Auditor. City staff conducts an annual fiscal and programmatic review and never reported any issues to Clara White Mission. These combined efforts underscore our dedication to maintaining the highest standards of fiscal responsibility, data management, and operational integrity.

COVID-19 represented an unprecedented time for not only Clara White Mission but the nation as a whole. Our organization adapted to the challenges presented by the pandemic to continue providing essential services to those in need.

I have been at the helm as the CEO/President of the Clara White Mission for 31 years and two-terms as a Jacksonville City Council Member. My leadership and the Clara White mission works speaks to the body of work that we have been able to achieve in carrying on the legacy with impact. As we get through this hurdle that the OIG has unfairly caused our organization, due to the internal processes, of the Division of Grants and Compliances that they acknowledged, the Clara White Mission remains committed to feeding the hungry in our community, ensuring that no one is turned away, and upholding the integrity of our services. Public funds used to help the most vulnerable citizens in our City are among the most impactful dollars we spend. The integrity of the expenditure of these funds must be beyond question. As a Council Member, I believe in ensuring transparency, accuracy, and proper use of taxpayer dollars. That is why I will file legislation to create additional checks and balances for the Division of Grants and Compliance and educate. This will not only benefit the City and enhance trust with taxpayers, it will ensure that nonprofits performing critical and grassroots services in our communities can have confidence in their interactions with local government.

Moving forward, Clara White Mission will continue to work closely with the City of Jacksonville to ensure that all oversight and documentation processes are clear, accurate, and transparent. We are committed to serving our community effectively and maintaining the trust of our donors, supporters and community partners, as we have for 120 years.”

This story comes from Jacksonville Today partner News4Jax.

The News4Jax Investigative Team

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