Whitney Bryen Oklahoma Watch
It’s been nearly a year since federal auditors uncovered a pattern of inappropriate spending at the Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, jeopardizing critical assistance for abused women and children in the state. State.
But those findings haven’t hindered the flow of public funds to the nonprofit, which supports victims of domestic and sexual abuse and victims’ rights advocates with training, policy updates and financial assistance.
Oklahoma reported a record number of domestic violence incidents last year. Its rate of domestic violence against women is the highest in the country, according to data from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Under Candida Manion’s leadership, the state coalition mismanaged more than $886,000 intended to support Oklahoma victims of abuse, a June 2021 audit report showed. State funds were spent for the holidays of employees and members of the Board of Directors. Some of the money went unaccounted for due to lack of invoices or signatures required under grant rules.
Despite an ongoing investigation into the mishandled money, federal agencies have awarded the nonprofit nearly $1.5 million since the audit was released.
Two grants totaling more than $500,000 were awarded by the Office on Violence Against Women, which provided the funds reviewed in the audit. This office has yet to determine what ramifications, if any, the nonprofit will face for its indiscretions.
The Office on Violence Against Women may suspend or bar the Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault from receiving new grants. Although that seems unlikely given the nonprofit’s recent success.
The American Rescue Plan and Family Violence Prevention and Services provided nearly $1 million.
Jeri Holmes, an attorney hired to assist the coalition with the audit, said the approval of these grants is a sign of confidence from federal agencies that future sanctions will not harm the nonprofit.
“One of the reasons we feel comfortable moving forward is that we got these additional grants,” Holmes said. “They are advancing therefore we are advancing.”
The Office on Violence Against Women could still require the nonprofit to repay some or all of the misappropriated funds. Or he could forgive the full amount.
The US Department of Justice could pursue criminal charges as it did in a recent case involving a similar nonprofit organization in Montana.
No charges or penalties were issued.
Early last year, after firing Manion, who oversaw the coalition’s budget as executive director, board members hired Holmes along with an interim director and chief financial officer to work with federal authorities.
Chief Financial Officer Sharon Sullivan provided thousands of invoices, receipts, training materials and other documents found in unorganized boxes and electronic files to the Office Against Violence Against Women.
Sullivan told a May 12 board meeting that all but $41,000 of the money in question was now accounted for.
“The coalition already had a lot of information,” Sullivan said. “We just went through the office and filed everything away so we could find it.”
The Office on Violence Against Women declined to comment on the ongoing investigation, according to an email from spokeswoman Aryele Bradford. The nonprofit’s staff and board members said they expected the process to drag on for at least a year.
Meanwhile, the coalition is forging ahead.
Board members prepare to launch a search for the organization’s next chief executive.
The board has promoted ReJeania Tolliver to Associate Director. Tolliver is the only employee working under Manion who remains at the association. Two new staff members were recently hired, including an accountant who is responsible for tracking expenditures for the new grants.
At least five of the 28 shelters and crisis centers the coalition supports have let their annual membership expire since the audit report was published.
Training for victim advocates has increased this year following the influx of grants, Tolliver told council members at the recent meeting. The coalition hosted an Advocates Retreat in Tulsa with sessions on self-care for those who work with victims of abuse. The coalition is providing financial support to the Seminole County Family Resource Center after a tornado damaged the facility earlier this month, displacing shelter residents and staff.
New financial policies to increase oversight have been added to the organization’s bylaws. The board has added a finance committee and an appointed treasurer who reviews all expenses of the coalition and ensures proper documentation is kept.
Board members spent most of the meeting debating the potential risks and benefits of opening a credit card for employee use. Currently, staff must bear the cost of hotel rooms, office supplies and other expenses until the expenses are reviewed by the board and approved for reimbursement. Treasurer Mindy Stevenson fought the suggestion.
Staff have been instructed to research what limits and restrictions can be placed on a credit card before putting it to a vote at a subsequent meeting.
“The problem we’ve had in the past is no one is verifying this information,” Stevenson said. “I don’t want this to happen again.”