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Nonprofits: SLED inquiry focuses on grant to CASA after director departs

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

The State Law Enforcement Division is looking into how a local nonprofit group, Citizens Against Spouse Abuse, used grant funds awarded last year.

A preliminary inquiry, which determines if an investigation is warranted, was requested by the S.C. Department of Public Safety on May 25 after a routine site visit to make sure grant funds had been spent in compliance with terms, said Sherri Iacobelli, a spokesperson for the department. CASA gets most of its funding from the department.

SLED confirmed the request has been received and the inquiry is under way.

In the mean time, all grant funding to the group has been frozen in accordance with procedure. JoAnne Patterson, who served as CASA director, is no longer with the group, Sissy Rutherford, who heads the nonprofit’s board of directors, confirmed last week, and CASA’s location in Georgetown County have been temporarily closed. Its safe house and offices in Horry County are still open.

“We’ve lost a couple of grants,” Rutherford said. Patterson “had something to do with the grants, so no, she’s no longer in that position.”

Julia Castilo was appointed as interim director, Rutherford said.

Additionally, a counselor and a legal advocate whose positions were paid for with grant funding that was affected have been laid off while the grant situation is sorted out.

CASA is fully cooperating with SLED, according to Rutherford.

“We’re not hiding anything here,” she said. “The board of directors, we take our responsibility very seriously. We’re looking into this to make sure no one has personally profited from any of this. There are many things I’ve done in my life where I’ve said if I don’t get this done right now, no one will die. That’s not the case here.”

As a past client of CASA, Rutherford said the group’s work is very close to her heart and she and the board are “very committed to the clients and victims who need our services, and we want to make sure their needs are met.”

Rutherford promised that CASA will continue to offer services or, when needed, redirect clients to other agencies, such as the Family Justice Center in Georgetown, to ensure victims of domestic violence continue to receive help.

The grant that started the inquiry was a $32,000 Victims of Crime subgrant from the Department of Public Safety’s Office of Justice Programs, Iacobelli said. It was awarded last July and authorized the purchase of two mid-size vans to transport victims.

“The way our grant process works, when we issue a grant we have to within the first year of the grant cycle go back and do a monitoring visit; look at paperwork on the grant and any equipment purchased to make sure everything is in compliance,” she explained.

“We were in the process of scheduling a monitoring visit with them and we noticed some inconsistencies with management of grant funding. At that time, we submitted our concerns to SLED and asked them to do a preliminary inquiry.”

Iacobelli can’t talk about what kind of inconsistencies were found or give details about the situation while the case is pending.

Rutherford said the discrepancy is because grant funds were used for CASA, but “our executive director did not spend the grant the way that they asked us to.”

The money was “kept in-house to keep CASA running is what happened,” she said. “Right now we’re looking at that very closely and trying to see what’s going on. I don’t believe there was any theft of any type.”

In October, CASA officials reported the nonprofit had lost more than 40 percent of its operating budget as a result of budget cuts made by state agencies.

CASA parted ways last year with the Family Justice Center after a falling out over grant funding. The center is a one-stop place for victims of domestic violence to find the help they need. CASA was originally supposed to have office space at the center as one of its partner agencies, but once officials there found that the new nonprofit would be competing for grant funds to offer some of the same services as CASA, it pulled out.

The two groups were reported to be working toward a reconciliation earlier this year with the aid of a mediator.

According to IRS filings, CASA received $710,142 in grants, contributions and other revenue in the 2010 fiscal year, a decrease of more than $90,000 over the prior year. From 2007 to 2010, its total assets dropped from $272,576 to $155,600. Patterson said in October that was largely a result of having to sell off condos the agency maintained as transitional housing.

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