Did ex-cons run a gang from their youth program?

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False advertising? One of COIL’s buildings holds itself out as the headquarters of Operation Safe Streets, but the project went away nearly two years ago. Photo: John Kelly

Baltimore—As morning gives way to noon in Southwest Baltimore, nobody is coming or going at 11 N. Carrollton St., an office of Communities Organized to Improve Life, better known as COIL. All of the shades are drawn on the top two floors of the bright red townhouse. Cream-colored curtains shroud the view from the big showcase windows surrounding the door.

Painted on a window is a blue and yellow sign that identifies the building as the home of COIL’s Operation Safe Streets – a risky, potentially rewarding venture to curb homicides in the area. But this Safe Streets project went away more than two years ago.

The sign became the last trace of a project gone awry when two COIL outreach workers, Todd Duncan and Ronald Scott, were indicted by a federal grand jury here last month on charges of distributing heroin as part of the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF), a prison gang that made its way to the city streets.

According to an affidavit filed in court by a member of a gang task force headed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Duncan was the BGF commander for the city and Scott was a key lieutenant in the drug trade – using their supposed youth outreach work at COIL only as a cover.

The affidavit alleges that Duncan used his COIL cellular phone, and those of other COIL employees, to arrange heroin purchases, packaging and sales. Several of those telephones were wiretapped during the investigation, including that of COIL CEO Stacy Smith. Duncan even used the COIL offices for a gang meeting, according to the affidavit.

Duncan and Scott, along with 11 alleged conspirators, are being held without bond, awaiting trial after this third round of indictments of alleged BGF members. Former COIL board members say the U.S. attorney’s office has contacted them about the organization, and Smith says she is shocked and angered that she and her nonprofit are implicated.

“It’s ridiculous” to think that COIL management should have known about Duncan’s leadership of BGF or Scott’s involvement, Smith said in a lengthy interview. “When you leave my doors, can I make you do right? It’s utterly ridiculous.”

It will be months, even years, before the COIL story plays out. But interviews with former employees and board members suggest an organization that struggled to manage its flagship programs, let alone one of the country’s riskiest street outreach models.

COIL’s failure may have jeopardized not only its own vitality but that of another organization whose efforts quieted a whole neighborhood in East Baltimore. In COIL’s neighborhood, the killings continue.

A promising model

The City of Baltimore received a federal earmark from the U.S. Department of Justice in 2005 to develop Operation Safe Streets, an anti-violence program that would replicate the highly regarded CeaseFire project undertaken in Chicago in 2000.

The approach seemed built for Baltimore, where there were an average of 275 homicides each year between 2004 and 2007. Mistrust of the police – Baltimore is the home of the “Stop Snitchin’ ” movement – made it difficult to spot and resolve conflicts before they turned violent.

The CeaseFire model uses outreach workers, many of whom are ex-offenders, to serve as credible voices in the street for peace.

The Justice Department funding flowed through the city Health Department, which selected nonprofits to implement Safe Streets in specific high-crime neighborhoods and monitored their work. Each contractor got about $380,000 a year.

That bought among other things, a program coordinator, an outreach supervisor and about a half-dozen outreach workers. Their main jobs are to hold public events that either promote peace or decry violence; make referrals for job training and education; and attempt to resolve conflicts on the street before they result in shootings, or at least prevent the chain of retaliation that often follows a homicide.

By design, many of the outreach workers hired for CeaseFire Chicago and Safe Streets Baltimore had served time in prison. The CeaseFire theory holds that such workers, removed from the crime lifestyle, carry with them a street credibility that other civilians, and certainly police officers, cannot.

From success to turmoil

The Baltimore initiative started in April 2007 on the city’s east side, when a nonprofit called Living Classrooms won a grant to work in the McElderry Park neighborhood.

In August, the city selected another organization to conduct Safe Streets in the Union Square neighborhood of Southwest Baltimore: Communities Organized to Improve Life.

Smith said the Health Department asked COIL to run the program. But James Smith (no relation), who eventually oversaw the program for COIL, says, “I don’t remember it quite like that.”

He recalls an intense competition for the money, in which COIL won out over nonprofits that proposed projects in other neighborhoods. (The next year, a nonprofit called Family Health Centers got a grant to make Cherry Hill in south Baltimore the city’s third Safe Streets site).

A historical view shows why the city would choose COIL. The nonprofit was founded in 1973 by a handful of community activists, and over the years it established a collection of services aimed at the community’s adult population. Its flagship programs included a senior center, operated at a nearby church, and the Learning Bank, established by a local nun. At its peak, the Learning Bank conducted literacy classes for some 600 teens and adults a year, according to former COIL Executive Director Judith Bennick, one of the organization’s founders.

COIL was overseen by a board made up of representatives from most of the other community-based organizations and churches in Southwest Baltimore. Below the board was an executive committee. Most of the organization’s funding came from city programs for the aging, community development block grants, the United Way of Central Maryland and the Maryland State Department of Education.

The city’s selection of COIL to run a Safe Streets program, however, came at a time of upheaval in the organization. In April 2005, the executive committee told Bennick to fire Nicole Edwards, who ran a program that worked on conflict resolution with families of youths who were in trouble at school or had had their first contact with the juvenile justice system.

After Bennick refused to fire Edwards without being given a valid reason, she said, the board fired her for insubordination and fired Edwards a few days later.

Bennick later sued COIL and agreed to a settlement with the organization she helped found. (As part of the agreement, she cannot talk about the settlement.) She believes the real reason behind her dismissal was the woman who took her place – Stacy Smith.

“She got me fired,” Bennick said.

Smith had worked for the Health Department and helped it develop a program called Success by Six, and then joined Bon Secours, the first nonprofit that was funded to run that program. But the leaders of Bon Secours subsequently asked COIL to take on the program, Bennick said, because they had problems with Smith.

COIL agreed. Bennick said the first two candidates she asked to run Success by Six declined the offer. So she hired Smith.

“She was very personable,” Bennick said. She chalked up Smith’s troubles at Bon Secours to a clash of personalities.

Not long thereafter, Bennick went on leave for about four months to care for her dying father. She believes that during that time, Smith convinced the COIL executive committee that she should be put in charge, promising that she could tap new funding streams.

Two board members opposed firing Bennick, and resigned shortly afterward.

“After firing Judy the way they did, it did not feel right,” said Connie Fowler, one of those board members. Under Bennick, Fowler recalled, “things went smoothly and went right.”

Problems began to surface soon after Smith took over. After Bennick’s departure, staff say that Smith cleaned house.

“There was an unprecedented amount of turnover,” said Dolores Bramer, who served as director of the Learning Bank for six years. “It was mostly due to firings.”

Bramer herself left in 2006, and is now director of education at the South Baltimore Learning Center.

“I left as a direct result of her management style,” which was “not conducive to an effective workplace,” Bramer said. “I also had concerns about the correct management of the grants.”

The Rev. Amos Burgess, who had recently joined the board when the vote to oust Bennick and Edwards occurred, remained on it for four years. He says he developed serious concerns about the way Smith ran COIL, and her failure to report on spending to the board and to funders.

“She wasn’t coming to the board to get permission to spend money, or anything like that,” Burgess said. “I couldn’t get along with it. I knew the way it was going, someone was going to get in some trouble.”

Bennick said that back when she supervised Smith, Smith almost lost a United Way grant for Success by Six due to poor financial reporting. United Way of Central Maryland says it has not funded COIL since December 2006.

Burgess said he was voted off the executive committee by its other members.

It is unclear what, if anything, the Health Department knew about the turmoil at COIL while it was considering COIL’s Safe Streets grant application. The department declined to comment on any aspect of this story, other than to refer to a statement issued by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake regarding the current suspension of the Safe Streets program in the wake of the federal indictments.

Safe Streets begins

Living Classrooms had a head start on COIL. The organization, led by James Piper Bond, received its first Safe Streets grant in April 2007 and was out on the street by that summer. COIL won its grant in August, but did not start recording activity on the street until March 2008, according to the Safe Streets evaluation done in 2009 by the Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Bond hired Leon Faruq, an ex-offender who has since died of kidney disease, to coordinate the program for Living Classrooms. Under Faruq, Safe Streets-McElderry Park made immediate gains. The 2009 evaluation of the McElderry Park project noted that “a large number of mediations were reported” by its street outreach staff in its first summer of operation. In the 17 months following implementation of Safe Streets, the evaluation said, “there has not been a single homicide in McElderry Park.”

At COIL, Stacy Smith tapped James Smith as COIL’s Safe Streets coordinator. He was a case manager connected to some of COIL’s Learning Bank programs. Like many Safe Streets leaders, James Smith had spent time in prison.

Bennick, who knew James Smith from his previous work with a fatherhood program in the area, described him as a friend of Stacy Smith, a pleasant man who “was always smiling.”

James Smith said he knew from the start that working with his staff – many of whom were not far removed from criminal activity – would be as big of a task as the outreach itself. “You’ve got to case-manage your staff” with Safe Streets, he said, and serve as an example to them.

He was confident he could do that. “It’s like dominoes [falling] in reverse; as you are picking up, they pick themselves up,” he said. “I’d been in the lifestyle, I’d been to prison and been caught up in drug addiction. But I was back in school again for a master’s degree.”

Former COIL board member Burgess said he was impressed with the way James Smith ran Safe Streets. “He was on the up and up with it,” Burgess said of his work.

But COIL’s program in Union Square, which began in March 2008, never produced the results of its McElderry Park predecessor. While McElderry went more than a year without a killing, homicides actually increased in Union Square as COIL’s outreach staff took to the streets, according to the 2009 Safe Streets evaluation. Workers in McElderry Park handled 15 mediations of potentially violent conflicts in August and September 2007. COIL’s Union Square workers recorded four mediations between March and July 2008.

James Smith was optimistic. A kick-off event for the program drew nearly 500 people, he said, and he and his staff were starting to connect on the streets. The Safe Streets evaluation found that “although beginning late, Union Square initially provided a substantial number of referrals” for services.

But in July 2008 – just five months after COIL’s street outreach started and a year after it was selected by the city – the Union Square Safe Streets project came to an abrupt end. The expectation had been that COIL would operate Safe Streets through the summer of 2009, but the Health Department did not renew COIL’s contract.

Why did it all go away? The answer depends on who is asked.

Different stories

The first public document to mention the contract termination came in the Health Department’s 2009 evaluation of the initiative. “The city decided not to renew the contract for implementing Safe Streets in Union Square due to COIL’s inability to fully implement the program model,” the evaluation said. Another passage of the evaluation said: “Because COIL did not fully implement the program, its contract was not renewed and significant program implementation was in place for (at most) only five months.”

When asked what exactly COIL failed to do, Health Department spokesman Brian Schleter would only say: “For official comment, we continue to direct reporters to the mayor’s initial statement on the matter.”

The statement by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, issued after the indictments were returned, says only that “in September 2008, the City Health Department terminated a contract with Communities Organized to Improve Life (COIL) for noncompliance.”

Stacy Smith and James Smith have two different views of why the contract ended.

Stacy Smith said it was COIL that walked away from the city over concerns it had with the way Safe Streets was being run, particularly regarding standards for hiring ex-offender outreach workers.

Early on, she said, “we raised very substantial questions” about what was being asked of COIL under the program. “I thought the nonprofit would incur too much risk,” she said.

Smith said her understanding was that the criterion for ex-offender outreach workers was that they had to be out of jail for more than a year. When they were hired in the first year of Safe Streets, Todd Duncan and Ronald Scott met that requirement.

But Smith said the hiring panels – assembled by the Health Department and including police and other Safe Street partners – kept recommending people who had been out of jail for just months.

The hiring protocols spelled out in the city’s request for proposals on Safe Streets make it seem that COIL would have some say in whom it would exclude. “The provider must conduct criminal background checks on all employees and hire in accordance with a policy approved by BCHD,” according to the RFP.

Smith said she told the Health Department she would no longer accept outreach candidates who did not fit her own criteria. She said the department “gave me an ultimatum” to hire some of the referred men or lose the contract.

Smith said COIL then walked away from Safe Streets. “My job is to protect this corporation,” she said. The CeaseFire model, as replicated by Baltimore, “was no longer palatable to us. I don’t think we thought it out … as a city.”

James Smith, COIL’s Safe Streets coordinator, said the Health Department severed ties because COIL was not providing the necessary financial reports to the city.

“The Health Department was good and fair,” he said. “When you’re a grant-funded program, you’re accountable for the money they give you. That’s where we ran into some problems.”

The COIL Safe Streets operations halted in the summer of 2008. But according to Stacy Smith, COIL’s outreach program was just beginning.

New outreach, old faces

The Safe Streets office became the new home of a different outreach program, one that aimed to bring more teens and young adults into COIL’s literacy programs, Stacy Smith said. She said that strategy has helped “the face of the Learning Bank shift from middle-aged people who can’t read” to a younger set who have either dropped out or are way behind in school.

“We paid for it out of our own coffers” through the Learning Bank budget, Smith said of the new outreach program.

The Learning Bank is funded primarily by city education dollars and an endowment that was established with some of the money from a capital campaign to build the center during Bennick’s tenure. The Maryland State Department of Education was a longtime grantor of the bank, but now funds Bramer’s South Baltimore Learning Center to conduct six literacy classes in COIL’s area.

Aside from work on the streets, Stacy Smith said, the outreach team would “make presentations at churches” and “passed out fliers.”

She hired three new outreach workers for the program, all of whom she said were years removed from involvement in the justice system.

Only two workers from the Safe Streets program stayed on for the new iteration of outreach: Todd Duncan and Ronald Scott. “We had no reason to let them go,” Smith said. “They did what they were asked to do” during Safe Streets.

Stacy Smith had little interaction with the outreach staff, who she said often worked night shifts, when more young people were out on the street. She said a coordinator supervised the program on a day-to-day basis.

No longer with the outreach staff was Safe Streets coordinator James Smith, who briefly worked on other COIL projects and then left the organization.

“There were ways the program was being run that I didn’t agree with,” he said of the outreach program after Safe Streets ended. “What they were doing, I don’t know. They weren’t doing what we were doing with Safe Streets, I can tell you that.”

He said he finds it odd that the Safe Streets sign has remained on the window all of these years, a subject his former boss glibly dismissed.

“Everybody knew we weren’t doing it any more,” Stacy Smith said.

One group that might have taken the sign at face value was the Drug Enforcement Administration task force investigating the Black Guerrilla Family, a gang that allegedly controls drug dealing in numerous prisons in the state and elsewhere and had recently spread its influence to the streets of Baltimore.

Gang infiltration?

The DEA task force’s affidavit, signed by Baltimore Police Detective William Nickoles, provides a litany of details from surveillance of BGF-related locations, court-authorized wiretaps and confidential informants.

After the first two rounds of indictment of alleged Black Guerrilla Family gang members a year earlier, the affidavit alleges that Duncan emerged as the Baltimore street commander.

A number of BGF leaders, including Duncan and Scott, trafficked heroin in the city, the affidavit alleges, and at least two members specialized as hit men for BGF. The gang might also have been involved in the kidnapping and murder of Marcal Antwan Walton, according to one of the task force’s confidential sources. Walton, 33, who had been abducted from his home, was found dead in an alley on Jan. 3 after a ransom had been paid for his release. According to the affidavit, the ransom was collected by a member of the BGF who was indicted with Duncan and Scott.

On page 55 of the 164-page affidavit, the task force reports what a confidential source told it about Duncan and Scott’s work at COIL:

“Duncan works at COIL as a way of legitimizing himself in the eyes of law enforcement and the public. Duncan gives the appearance of working with at-risk youth, while maintaining his role as leader of the BGF. Additionally, Duncan has assisted other BGF members like Ronald Scott … to obtain jobs as youth counselors at COIL.”

It is not the only mention of COIL or its employees in the affidavit. Another source cited in the affidavit names Stacy Smith as an “active BGF member.” The task force monitored calls from a cellular phone “subscribed to Aja M. Trice,” who is listed as an employee of COIL in an e-mail sent by Stacy Smith in July 2008. It says Duncan used Trice’s phone.

Stacy Smith said she fired Duncan and Scott last month after they were indicted, but said that is the extent of COIL’s reaction to the situation. She said she has no reason to believe her outreach supervisor should have known about Duncan’s alleged second career.

“It’s not an indictment of people” at COIL, Smith said.

Duncan and Scott “received a paycheck. That’s it,” she said. “None of those [drug-related] activities were done at COIL.”

The task force disagrees. Agents describe in the affidavit an incident captured on the wiretap that indicated Duncan “was holding a BGF meeting at COIL.”

COIL’s Safe Streets program had been defunct for nearly two years the day Detective Nickoles signed an affidavit regarding the federal investigation of BGF. And yet the affidavit refers to the program as if it were active.

“Funding for the Operation Safe Streets initiative run by COIL is provided by a grant from the United States Department of Justice,” the affidavit says.

Because of the indictment, the mayor temporarily suspended the entire city’s Safe Streets program “pending further review and investigation.” Safe Streets had been provided an additional $1 million from the Justice Department for 2010.

The source that provided information on Duncan’s motive for working at COIL was quoted in the affidavit as saying that the McElderry Park program is “controlled” by BGF member Anthony “Gerimo” Brown. Living Classrooms CEO James Bond has denied any connection between Brown and the program.

“We know nothing about him, and our guys know who is who,” Bond said. “They’re out there day in and day out, they’ve done about 150 mediations. We’re wondering if there even is an Anthony Brown.”

James Smith, now an intervention specialist with the Baltimore City Public Schools, said he regrets the abrupt demise of the COIL program.

“We got a good program in place with an opportunity to make a difference,” he said. “No doubt, if [the Health Department] had got the reports they needed, we’d still be up and running right now.”