NEON working toward settling federal debt

Joe Mann NEON
Joe Mann pleads with the public last year during a NEON board meeting held at Nathaniel Ely School.

NORWALK, Conn. – Joe Mann is getting a demanding letter from a South Norwalk anti-poverty agency regarding the massive debt for which many people he feel is responsible.

Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) is on the hook for more than $700,000 stemming from two audits conducted by the federal Office of the Inspector General. While former interim CEO and President Pat Wilson Pheanious said the $400,000 that is described as “misspent” in the audit released in 2012 could be made to go away, the $314,605 identified in a more recent audit will need to be repaid.

Board members said last week they are sending a demand letter to Mann, the former CEO and president who is blamed for the massive irregularities. They hope an insurance agency will come up with the money, but first they must send Mann a letter – no one seemed to expect the money back, but it’s what you must do to satisfy the insurance agency, they said.

Board member Michael Berkhoff said that was also what Connecticut Department of Social Services Commissioner Roderick Bremby wanted the agency to do.

“He said that the board hasn’t acted on it,” Berkhoff said. “I told him that at the next board meeting I would bring it up and if that’s the way we have to go we will move forward.”

At that point, Chairman William Westcott clamped down on the conversation, saying, “We shouldn’t discuss any more details really about litigation in this session.”

Berkhoff said Bremby had been assertive about getting the money back.

“He said that we, as a board, have not acted on it because I pushed back on them and said ‘how come you guys haven’t done anything?’ He said the board has to do it,” he said.

Pheanious said recently that the $400,000 in “misspent” Head Start money could be attributed to accounting errors and so forth.

The $314,605 stems from credit card charges made by Mann, according to OIG. Those “unallowable charges” include:

• $4,983 for items including $733 for personal travel following a business conference, $624 for three briefcases, $364 in purchases from Apple iTunes, and $142 for two Cross pens.

• $1,973 for costs such as fuel, car washes and Sirius XM radio that were related to his company vehicle.

• 27 credit card transactions totaling $2,478 that did not have adequate documentation to assess their allowability. Many of these purchases were made at stores that sell both business and personal items, such as restaurants (10 transactions), large retail stores (five transactions), and supermarkets (tw0 transactions).

• 47 credit card transactions totaling $1,329 that had no supporting documentation. Many of these purchases were made at stores that sell both business and personal items, such as Apple iTunes (18 transactions) and Amazon.com (12 transactions).

Many Norwalk residents, including South Norwalk activist John Mosby, wonder why Mann hasn’t been arrested, given the severity of that account.

Norwalk Police Chief Thomas Kulhawik said that federal authorities have not requested any help in the matter.

“The Office of Inspector General is part of the department of Health and Human Services and obviously a federal agency, which, from what I understand, audited NEON and specifically the spending of federal funds,” he said in an email. “I am not aware of any request by them for any involvement by this department. I don’t know whether there was any federal investigation aside from the audit.  You would need to contact the federal authorities to determine if they considered any of the unsupported expenditures to be criminal in nature or treated as simply a violation of the guidelines or without proper documentation etc…”

Donald White of the U.S. Department of Health &Human Services Office of Media Communications declined to comment on the matter.

“As a matter of standard law enforcement process, the Office of the Inspector General and Health and Human Services neither confirms nor denies an investigation that may … or may not … be pending before the agency,” he said.

After the second audit became public, Pheanious released a statement.

“Please be assured that NEON has retained counsel to further the process of recouping funds that were misdirected. We will use every vehicle that is available in this circumstance to recoup mismanaged, fraudulently utilized or poorly accounted funds,” she said.

NEON Interim CEO and President Chiquita Stephenson said last week that NEON’s attorneys are working on an appeal regarding the “misspent” $400,000.


7 responses to “NEON working toward settling federal debt”

  1. Lifelong Teacher

    Shameful. He should be prosecuted, and the others at NEON who let this go on should also be held responsible.

  2. Norwalk Spectator

    “While former interim CEO and President Pat Wilson Pheanious said the $400,000 that is described as “misspent” in the audit released in 2012 could be made to go away, the $314,605 identified in a more recent audit will need to be repaid.”
    “Made to go away”????? Are we talking formal debt forgiveness here or more questionable accounting? And if the $400,000 (which seems to be a popular figure in terms of shortfalls) does “go away”, what happens next? It means the taxpayers got soaked for $400,000, because, ultimately, that’s where every penny of this funding comes from, whether it be through Federal, State, municipal or corporate channels. Somebody somewhere worked for those dollars.
    Every single last dollar should be repaid, and the City should continue to stand firm about not giving more money to the agency until the debt has been fully repaid and the accounting practices are transparent.

  3. dawn

    that ads up to about 11,000. what about the other 313,000 thousnd.
    i personally asked Mr. Mann about the gas expenditures at one of the meeting held in the Ely gym. He declined to answer.

  4. LWitherspoon

    Over what time period did the $314,605 in unallowed credit card transactions take place? Was that entire amount credit card charges by Joe Mann?

    1. Mark Chapman

      @ LWitherspoon,

      The period covered by the DSS document covered July 1, 2009 to March 30, 2012. Not sure if all the charges were from the credit card. Click the link to see the original story about this, along with a link (at the end of the story) to the letter from DSS to NEON. The first link in the story will get you to an earlier story about the audit and three more documents.

  5. Neoscam

    The public’s trust will not be restored until indictments are handed down. People need to go to prison for this. It doesn’t get much lower than stealing from needy children.

  6. Jlightfield

    This is absurd reporting. There are many software applications that relate to education that can be purchased on iTunes. A contract between your executive staff and your board establishes which is an allowable expense and a reimbursable expense. The board allowed these business expenses to be allocated to the head start program without accountability. The blame game on Joe Mann is outrageous and unwarranted. Joe might not have been as diligent a CEO to prevent these accounting irregularities from transpiring, but the lack of oversight allowed it to happen. Note that staff hasn’t changed.

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