He said, she said: Agency leaders differ on NEON-South Norwalk Center dispute

 Norwalk Common Councilman Warren Peña (D-At Large)
Norwalk Common Councilman Warren Peña (D-At Large), left. Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) interim President and CEO Pat Wilson Pheanious, right.

NORWALK, Conn. – Two very different versions of events are coming out of the building at 98 South Main Street in Norwalk.

While Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) interim President and CEO Pat Wilson Pheanious said that Norwalk Common Councilman Warren Peña (D-At Large), chairman of the South Norwalk Community Center, has been behaving like a “complete jerk” since his aunt resigned her paid position with NEON, Pena said his problems with NEON leadership go back to his first meeting with Pheanious and NEON Chief Operating Officer Chiquita Stephenson after he took on the task of leading the center.

“I had no idea that at my first meeting Pat and Chiquita would come to SNCC and try to strong-arm SNCC to join their cause,” Peña said in an email. “It was like an ultimatum, either you get on board with NEON or get an attorney. Well I took Chiquita’s recommendation on helping SNCC, and Pat’s advice on getting an attorney.”

NEON and SNCC are tenants in common at 98 South Main St. The relationship between Peña and NEON leadership has become openly hostile.

Peña joined the SNCC board about a year after being elected to the council in 2011. His aunt, Josie Castillo, was SNCC executive director as a full-time paid employee, and had been for years.

Castillo and a part-time employee were paid through a Hispanic Human Development grant administered by NEON. That meant Castillo was working for the center, but paid by NEON, Pheanious said.

Pheanious was signing paychecks for Castillo, but had no knowledge of what Castillo was doing, she said.

The rift between NEON and Peña began when Pheanious tried to work out a Memorandum of Understanding, a standard part of a working arrangement between two organizations sharing a building that is required by the Connecticut Department of Social Services.

The situation with Castillo was intolerable, Pheanious said, because NEON was being held accountable for her actions. Castillo was operating an unlicensed after-school program, Pheanious said. The Connecticut Department of Health came in and fined NEON $2,500 because the program was unlicensed, and because Castillo was technically a NEON employee. Pheanious had to sign a document promising not to operate unlicensed programs under threat of a $600,000 fine, she said.

“It was a ridiculous situation,” Pheanious said. “… I said she would have to move out and start working for NEON.”

Castillo chose to resign instead, Peña said, as she was close to retirement. He has described her departure as “being fired” by NEON.

Last week, Peña described Stephenson as an “all-around bad person that I refuse to do business with.”

“I don’t surround myself with people like her,” he said. “That’s why they dropped my aunt from the payroll and pinned her against me offering her a job, saying she was either with SNCC or against NEON.  Disgusting tactics after a woman who served SNCC for 28 years.  So she has come after SNCC as a bully, disrespected my family and never had any respect for me as an elected official and president/ chair of a neighbor/ co-owner.”

Recently, Pheanious said she couldn’t understand the councilman’s attitude toward the organization that nurtured him as a child. He is using his Common Council office inappropriately, she said. She said that offends her as a citizen and a taxpayer, even if she isn’t paying taxes in Norwalk.

Pena said, in return, that Pheanious is clueless and had missed the point.

“It’s never been about the agency, it’s been about the trio!” he said in an email, referring to Pheanious, Stephenson and Chief Programming Officer Mary Mann. “It also was not about the ignored population, never has been.  It’s about a group of people that can’t be trusted.”

Pheanious began speaking out after Peña sent an email to Democratic mayoral candidates, recommending that they shun a mayoral forum organized by NEON. In response, Pena said NEON should not be involved in politics.

“They need to get their fiscal house in order, restore public trust and clean up the nepotism, along with the trio that has continued to behave unprofessionally and irresponsibly,” he said in an email. “I have not condemned NEON the agency, I have condemned and know that the trio is no good,” and must be removed for the agency to move forward.

Peña said Pheanious has not been running the show for “quite some time.”

“It has been run by Chiquita,” he said. “NEON staff will tell you (that) privately but no one wants to jeopardize their job, because as soon as you speak against the trio, they dismiss you immediately.”

Stephenson, who has been appointed to a six-month term as interim president and CEO to fill Pheanious’ shoes in early September, should not be trusted, Pena said.

“She told me during the 2011 campaign that Joe Mann was trying to dissolve SNCC and that I needed to step in to help my aunt,” he said. “People spoke highly of her to me, but then I experienced something completely different.”

He agreed with Pheanious on one point: The tensions come from the administration of the HHD grant.

“SNCC had no idea they were co-owner of the building until I stepped in and did my due diligence,” he said. “Once I found out that NEON administered our grant and finances, I asked to see the books as it related to SNCC.  That’s when the war started, because they knew that they were stealing money from SNCC. They have been misappropriating funds from a grant (of which) SNCC was subcontractor.  They even admitted in front of SNCC and NEON attorneys that they take money from our grant and pay other employees exercising non program/ services under the Human Hispanic Development grant for SNCC.  So you see, they never wanted to open the books to me because they knew if they did, I would go public, which I did anyway, that they have been misappropriating our funds for years.  The trio never wanted to work with me because I didn’t want anything to do with NEON and wanted to separate our identities.”

Peña said Pheanious is correct: both agencies helped raise him.

“I was nurtured by the South Norwalk Community Center, and I’m sure NEON had some involvement as they have worked together in the past,” he said. “I am a product of a social service agency that has not forgotten my roots, and while I live all the way across town almost on the New Canaan line, I have come back to where I came from and see the corruption in an agency that helped my family years ago; and so many in the community.  I came there to salvage the center because of what I saw the trio doing, not only to SNCC but its tactics in running SNCC’s neighbor/ co-owner … NEON.”

Mann and Stephenson worked for NEON under former CEO Joe Mann, when the agency ran into profound trouble stemming from a federal Office of the Inspector General audit that showed the agency misspent more than $400,000 in federal funds. The trio is partly to blame, he said.

“These are the same people who were there during all the mismanagement,” he said. “They continue to mismanage on many fronts. All you have to do is read, inquire and follow the money.”


11 responses to “He said, she said: Agency leaders differ on NEON-South Norwalk Center dispute”

  1. Norwalk Lifer

    This is an embarrassment; so we find familial feuds ala the Borgias as part of the background of the animus between SNCC and NEON; ridiculous!

    And the accusation that anyone who speaks out against the triumvirate, is summarily dismissed and never heard from again. Of course, Mr. Pena is trying to “burn the village in order to save it”, but how does that play into his command to the Democratic candidates not to appear at NEON? who exactly does this young man think he is? I never seen such breathtaking ego before like this, there is no negotiation, just finger pointing. And who suffers? those “new Warren Pena families”? Look here’s the short story, if those who run NEON can’t learn their lines and not bump into the furniture, then they should leave. And Mr. Pena? he should just stop his gutter sniping tactics, they are low, they are below standard, and surely anyone who reads this gets the impression that this is motivated by filial piety.

    Norwalk Lifer

  2. rburnett

    Well said, Norwalk Lifer. This is an embarassment to the entire city, not just SNCC and NEON. I too benefitted from NEON and was nurtured by their wonderful programs. If not for them, I do not know where I would be today. Instead of trying to destroy them, Mr. Pena should be trying to work with them to help them rebuild. The past is the past, let’s move to the future and stop casting stones. It was a disgrace to have an elected offical try to block candidates for Mayor from bringing their platforms to the people. This should be a strong signal to the voters come election day.

  3. loveforthecity

    Kudos to Mr. Pena for his continued hard work in taking on a task no other elected official or community leader is willing to step into. True leadership comes in the face of adversity and following this very closely, he has shown that he will stand up to the status quo when they are wrong, whether it’s in South Norwalk or City Hall. He should be running for Mayor.

  4. Lisa Thomson

    I too, give kudos to Mr. Pena. I am not familiar with either NEON or SNCC but the stories that surface, if only half true, indicate how cronyism and status quo behavior has tarnished the reputation of an otherwise respectable institution that Mr. Pena and others, who have posted on this site benefitted from in their youth. Normally, I would take a Norwalk ‘tongue in cheek’ attitude to some of the stories, but with both the Feds and State asking NEON questions, it demonstrates to me, that this is not just local Norwalk politics. The NEON Board still has much to answer for if this agency is to survive.

  5. Rob

    Sounds like sour grapes on Mr. Pena’s behalf. Here’s a guy, spawned from NEON, who’s Aunt loses her position and now it’s personal? Give me a break. NEON has always been poorly managed from the days of Burgess to Mann and when it suited Mr. Pena that was fine? Looks like we have another Johnnie come lately. Warren: take a hike.

  6. LWitherspoon

    I too find it interesting that Mr. Pena is fine with his Aunt drawing a paycheck from SNCC. In fact, Mr. Pena reveals that he has waded into this dispute because of the “disrespect” shown to his Aunt. Yet in the same breath he criticizes NEON for nepotism!
    Psst, Warren: In the future, when you want to use your elected office to settle political scores with people who have “disrespected” you and your family, it would be best not to announce in NoN that this is what you are doing.

  7. loveforthecity

    It is said that Mr. Pena only took the position as chair knowing that his relative was on her way out i.e retirement. Some of you write and go on and on, but really have no idea what you are talking about.
    @Rob if you follow Mr. Pena, you would know that he was a kid when he and his family needed those services and lived in South Norwalk. If you know a little about Mr. Pena he lived in East Norwalk throughout high school no longer needing NEON or SNCC services.
    @Lisa don’t always agree but your comments are right on

  8. Norwalk Lifer

    Submitting to the public eye, discussions that may have been in confidence does not endear Mr. Pena’s cause either, and it shouldn’t endear for others either; With regards to Mr. Pena “sacrificing” on behalf of his aunt, while this might be the case, and it might be noble, it is not something we are interested in. NEON has done a lot, and I mean a lot for the community, and I would argue those who do not live in this community really don’t know what they are talking about.

    There are many of us in South Norwalk who have contributed, we do not want recognition for it, we simply want to help our community, Mr. Pena’s words shows he has no new ideas, no vision for improving the situation, just more and more criticism to make himself appear taller. As my father once said, “The true measure of man is one who does not chop down trees to make himself appear taller”

    Norwalk Lifer

  9. Can do better, can we not?

    Geesh. Thought things would get better when Mann left and some attention and effort was made to clean up the act in that building and board. No one is suggesting anyone’s heart isnt in the right place but cmon, ya’all ADULTS, now. This is not romper room. This is serious. That is directed at all ya’all. What the mission is about is not, just, being clouded by this immature public behaviour of a playground power play over the coveted toy, its tottaly obscuring the mission and costing lost opportunities. For a woman to see a need not being met and start her own summer school program and than get slammed against the wall. Shame, shame. Ya all need to be really ashamed and the reality alarm clock should be blaring keeepig ya all awake at night. That committed, dedicatated woman should’ve recieved all the support she needed to carry on battling illiteracy, one of the root ills of poverty and violence. Yet she was forced to close. Ya all need to loose the ego menatalities and focus on the mission at hand. If any of you do not have the skills needed for the task and cannot keep personel differences from interfereing with the mission, please resign for the good of the community and for the charter of the mission. There are plenty of folks out here that understand the mission and are passionate and committed and this organization is ignoring them in some cases throwing up more barriers. Cmon guys and gals. Think this through. You wouldnt be in the seat you are sitting if you didnt care. Ya all do the right thing, not for your egos but for the mission. Thank you for your efforts and maturity, as we all move forward to moving the misson forward.

  10. Bill

    What does Pena hope to gain as SNCC head? He wants a grant so he too can milk the taxpayers to do some sort of “programs”.

  11. cypher talk

    I work there now…….holy corruption! it trickles down to directors that they favor with absolutely no skills who are willing to look the other way and partake of the festivities. The state and federal should be asking questions about all of the grants and funds and questioning criminal behavior. They are scrambling like roaches these days looking guilty and crying in the bathrooms. Poor front line staff who come in strictly for client services and genuinely love to help people. May GOD continue to expose and lead this situation to best benefit the underserved.

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