PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A state audit into how more than $1 million in taxpayer money was spent reveals that the former director of the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families accepted thousands of dollars in consulting fees from a Providence nonprofit that was under contract with the agency at the time.
Janice DeFrances – who was appointed director by Gov. Lincoln Chafee in June 2011 – accepted $14,977 in consultation fees and other expenses, including reimbursement for “restaurants, supplies, and an alcohol purchases,” according to the report by the R.I. Bureau of Audits. She also “circumvented” the state’s purchasing regulations, it said.
The audit says DeFrances mentioned the fees in a number of emails reviewed by investigators. “Also, instead of getting a check for each meeting I facilitate,” she wrote in one email quoted in the audit, “I will just request $2,500.00 for consultation.”
The audit states that DeFrances did not provide sufficient supporting documents for reimbursements and “appeared” to have violated the state ethics code by taking the consulting fees because she was overseeing the nonprofit’s contract with DCYF.
R.I. Executive Office of Health and Human Services spokesperson Mike Raia said the findings were turned over to the R.I. State Police. “An investigation is ongoing,” he said. “We don’t comment on state police investigations.” The information has also been forwarded to the R.I. Ethics Commission.
DeFrances, who was paid just over $127,000 last year, has not responded to a request for comment from Target 12. Earlier this year Gov. Gina Raimondo opted not to reappoint DeFrances, who then sent a letter to the governor announcing her retirement from the agency.
The audit focused on $949,230 in taxpayer-funded grant money provided by DCYF to the nonprofit Center for Southeast Asians (CSEA) during the 2013-14 and 2014-15 fiscal years, as well as a $120,000 grant to the group from R.I. Attorney General Peter Kilmartin’s office.
“The CSEA’s mission is to promote the prosperity, heritage, and leadership of Southeast Asians in Rhode Island,” the audit states. The center received $1.3 million from the state during the last two fiscal years, according to the audit.
But auditors claimed almost half of the total grant money – $433,962 – remains unspent even though CSEA’s contract with DCYF calls for unspent funds to be returned to DCYF unless there is written consent to keep the funds.
Auditors also discovered $10,890 in expenses by CSEA that were not allowed under the contract, such as meals and entertainment. CSEA’s contract has been amended six times since 2012 without proper approval, according to the audit.
Raia said the Raimondo administration has demanded that CSEA pay back $444,852 plus $53,382 in interest, and has also begun the process of trying to suspend its status as a state vendor.
Bill Fischer, a spokesman for CSEA, released a statement in responce to the audit that said: “This is an important organization supporting the Southeast Asian community and it is unfortunate that the reputation of the center has been maligned based on some of the assumptions contained in this audit. These assumptions threaten the very existence of the center and its ability to operate moving forward.”
Fischer said CSEA cooperated with the audit and has scheduled a meeting with DCYF officials to discuss the audit’s findings. “We respect the reforms being initiated at the department and look forward to our discussions with the department to resolve this matter,” he said.
Jamia McDonald – an Executive Office of Health and Human Services official who is currently overseeing a restructuring of DCYF – said the audit has already led to a number of changes, including reviewing all DCYF payments over $1 million and in some cases suspending contracts.
“We continue to act quickly and appropriately to create more efficient processes to improve the services for the children and families in our care,” McDonald said.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Elizabeth Roberts said the new administration “inherited significant challenges at DCYF and Eleanor Slater Hospital,” and called the latest audit’s findings “disturbing.”
“We will not tolerate any misuse of taxpayer dollars,” Roberts said, “especially dollars that are designated to protect our most vulnerable children and families.”
The audit involving CSEA released Tuesday is the second Bureau of Audits report on DCYF in recent months. It follows an earlier audit released in late July that documented a long list of problems at the agency.