Strickland: New governor examines Ohio’s faith-based operations.
Photo: Office of the Governor of Ohio
To get a hint of how the nation’s changing political balance of power might affect some youth services, just try to reach the main faith-based initiative contractor in Ohio – soon, because it might go out of business.
“We’re struggling right now,” says John Pentz, chairman of We Care America. “We have tapped all of our credit lines.”
That’s a stunning turnaround for a politically connected nonprofit that soared under the Bush administration’s faith-based initiative, bringing in more than $3 million one year, largely through federal and state contracts and grants.
But in late March, Ohio’s new Democratic governor, Ted Strickland, canceled We Care’s contract to administer a program that provides grants to faith-based and community nonprofits, while one state agency is investigating the nonprofit and another is auditing it.
The moves in Ohio are part of a backlash that is building against some of the faith-based and abstinence-only sex education efforts that have been a hallmark of the Bush administration. Ohio is also among more than a dozen states that are turning down their share of the federal Title V State Abstinence Education Program, which provides states a total of $50 million a year, much of which goes to faith-based organizations.
We Care America, based in Landsdowne, Va., was founded in 2000 by Dave Donaldson, former national director of the Rev. Pat Robertson’s relief organization, Operation Blessing, and an honorary member of President Bush’s Presidential Prayer Team. Other prominent staffers included Pam Pryor, David Mills and Monty Hipp.
We Care began landing federal contracts to provide training to faith-based and community service programs, along with AmeriCorps funding and contracts to carry out training and administer grants programs in California and Ohio. Its income, as reported on its federal tax returns, rose from about $244,000 in 2000 to $3.2 million in 2003.
That year, We Care paid Patton Boggs, the Washington lobbying firm, $84,000 for “earmark consulting,” according to its tax returns. Those returns also say the organization spent no money on lobbying.
But We Care’s rise was ridiculed last year in Tempting Faith, a tell-all account of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives by its former deputy director, David Kuo.
Writing about the system for grading grant applicants under the Compassion Capital Fund, Kuo said We Care was one of several sprouting faith-based organizations that mysteriously scored far higher than long-established providers like Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and Public/Private Ventures. Kuo called the ratings “a farce” and the specific rating for We Care – 99.67 out of 100 – “bizarre.”
“They had a staff of three, all from the world of Washington politics, all very Republican,” he wrote.
By early this year, however, for reasons that are not clear, We Care’s only government contract appeared to be with Ohio.
Change in Ohio was evident soon after Strickland – a psychologist, former congressman and Methodist minister who once ran a Methodist children’s home – defeated Republican Ken Blackwell, a booster of faith-based initiatives, in the 2006 gubernatorial race. Strickland almost immediately replaced key staff members in the Governor’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives created by former Gov. Robert Taft (R), which provides small grants to faith-based and community programs to improve their ability to raise money. The new governor also ordered a review of all faith-based contracts and programs.
We Care was the predominant contractor for the faith-based office. Starting in 2005, We Care served as Ohio’s main intermediary for faith-based grantees, informing interested groups on what the grants were for, deciding who would receive the $22 million in funding over two years, and providing training for the duration of the grants.
We Care’s payments from Ohio were suspended during the review ordered by Strickland.
And in mid-March, the Dayton Daily News started reporting on questionable business practices by We Care, including its purchases of two giant flat-screen televisions, a $6,000 study that effusively praised Taft for creating the faith-based office, and a 15 percent overhead charge that We Care regularly included in its invoices.
The Daily News also cited 15 grantees “who complained that We Care America had not reimbursed them” for carrying out abstinence education programs.
When the Ohio Department of Administrative Services called in March to discuss potential problems found in the contract review, it could not reach any We Care representatives, according to department documents. “Phone calls to Northern Virginia and Columbus were not returned,” says Strickland spokesman Keith Dailey. Officials found the We Care America office in Columbus abandoned.
Strickland terminated the contract, the state inspector general launched an investigation, and the Department of Job and Family Services, which includes the faith-based office, began an audit.
Pentz, the We Care board chairman, says he welcomes the investigation, because he believes We Care is a victim of partisan political ideology.
“I think it’s politics at its worst,” says Pentz, who runs a real estate business in California. “You don’t pay someone for work they’ve done? And then we get slammed in the newspaper for not being upfront?”
Pentz defends all of the criticized management practices as services that the state asked for under Taft, who served from 1999 to 2007. He says the televisions were part of a communication system requested by the state, so that We Care could conduct meetings remotely among state officials and its staffs in Columbus and Virginia, reducing air travel costs. The 15 percent overhead was to account for national We Care staff working on the Ohio project, Pentz says.
Some grantees didn’t get paid, Pentz says, because the state froze payments to We Care. Three organizations on a list of 11 provided by Dailey, the governor’s spokesman, said they understood that to be the case, and had not formally complained about We Care.
The grantees gave We Care mixed reviews.
“I have nothing but high regard for them. They helped us tremendously,” says Dale Nieberding, head of Good Shepherd Ministries in Dayton, which secured a $50,000 grant through the Compassion Capital Fund after working with We Care. “This got us, like, three levels up” as an organization.
“The [We Care] people you meet face to face are helpful and engaging,” says Joe Paris, director of Canton Community KidsSummit Against Drugs. “But their process is very cumbersome,” and payments “were very slow in coming in.”
Pentz calls the state’s assertion that it could not contact We Care a “bald-faced lie.” He says We Care sent letters and made calls to state officials to discuss the contract reviews, but “we were told they couldn’t talk to us.”
Dailey, of the governor’s office, can’t say that claim isn’t true, but says that “for several weeks” after questions arose, “attempts were made to contact We Care America.”