What happened at the Life Focus Center of Charlestown looks like another scandalous case of nonprofit-gone-wild.
But it's also a tragedy for 140 men and women with disabilities. To them, the center was a lifeline, whatever the financial transgressions of executive director Jack Millerick.
Millerick earned over $200,000 a year, and his wife, daughter, and brother-in-law were also on the center's payroll. A report issued by state Auditor Suzanne Bump highlighted questionable credit card charges that Millerick ran up.
After scathing headlines in the Boston Herald, the Rev. Daniel Mahoney, chairman of the board of Life Focus Center, resigned, saying the findings were an embarrassment. The state then pulled the plug on $1.7 million in contracts which funded the center's operations.
This story rightly puts a spotlight on the out-of-whack salaries and perks available in the shadowy world of Massachusetts nonprofits. But it should also put a focus on the people and families this center served, and their scramble to find comparable back-up services.
“There's no question they [Life Focus Center] made some serious errors in judgment and fact about how they did their accounting. There's also no question they have run a magnificent program for 30 years for some of the neediest and most desperate people and families,” said Larry Rasky, who is acting as a spokesman for the center.
Rasky contends Millerick was working with the state for the past year to clear up accounting issues and suggests some political grandstanding led to the current crisis. Even so, it's hard to justify the cushy details of Millerick's arrangement.
On top of Millerick’s salary and penchant for employing relatives, Bump's audit revealed that Millerick had used the center's credit card to buy restaurant meals and liquor, and pay for expenses on a Disney World vacation.
Family members of the center's clients just want to know what's going to happen to the place their relatives call home.
Chrissie Sexton, 43, who has Down syndrome, has been going to Life Focus Center for more than 20 years, said her sister, Karen Anderson, who has stepped in as the center’s interim president. She said the entire staff is her sister's “second family.”
“They've just done wonderful things for her ... It's so important to keep the continuity of the program,” said Anderson.
Last week, anxious relatives met with officials from the state Department of Developmental Services to tell them how important it is to keep the program going and the staff intact. Anderson said she is hopeful their message got through.
Larry Tummino, deputy commissioner of DDS, said the state’s “number one goal is to minimize disruption.” Another provider will manage the program at the same location, he said, and keep the same schedule of activities. The state is asking the new agency to try to retain as many current staff members as possible. “It’s clear to us, these people feel like one big family,” he said.
Ongoing press reports continue to reveal serious abuse throughout the Massachusetts nonprofit world. For years, friendly boards of directors rubber-stamped outrageous compensation agreements that board members now contend they knew nothing about. Top-paying jobs went to wives, girlfriends, and close friends. For too long, no one with oversight authority asked any questions. Now, some tough questions are being asked of nonprofits, from Blue Cross Blue Shield to the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, from the Merrimack Special Education Collaborative to the Life Focus Center.
There's still a sense that oversight occurs on a case-by-case basis and is driven more by headlines than by systemic review. Meanwhile, the abuse at the top of nonprofits feels even worse when it comes at the expense of the most vulnerable citizens.
It makes people who already feel over-taxed even more cynical about where their money is going. In lean times, it makes people feel less inclined to help those who need the most help. Helping Anderson's sister live a fulfilling life is one thing; helping Millerick pay for a Disney vacation is something different.
Think about all the greedy administrators who may be tucked away in the state's 22,000 nonprofits. Then think of all the needy clients — like those at the Life Focus Center — whose life could be so much better if more of our money feathered programs instead of nests.