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.”