NEON’s former board members offer insight into the past

Sherelle Harris, left, and Deidra Davis listen to Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now’s then-CEO and President Joe Mann at a NEON board meeting in 2012 at Nathaniel Ely School.

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NORWALK, Conn. – Questions are being asked about an embattled South Norwalk anti-poverty agency – such as, where was the oversight from the former board of directors?

Evidence of financial irregularities at Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now is now piling on to the damning federal audits showing misspent money. Questions asked by the new board of directors have prompted Norwalk residents to ask if former board members were giving the agency the scrutiny it required.

NancyOnNorwalk sent questionnaires to five politicians who had been on the board. Two answered, and they are political neophytes.

On Sept. 6, we sent the questionnaire to state Sen. Bob Duff (D-Norwalk), Common Councilman Carvin Hilliard (D-District B) and Common Councilman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large). Hempstead is currently seeking re-election; Hilliard is not. Duff is not up for re-election this year.

Hempstead and Hilliard did not reply.

On Sept. 9, Duff wrote back to say he would be happy to talk about it. He did not reply to a subsequent email suggesting we talk that Thursday. On Sept. 26 we wrote to him again. He did not reply.

Only Sherelle Harris, a Democratic Board of Education candidate, and Deidra Davis, a Democratic At-Large Common Council candidate, took on the unpleasant task of answering for their past involvement with the agency.

The women, who served on the board as the problems at NEON became public, both say that board members did demand monthly financial accounting, which still eludes current board members. It was not forthcoming.

Here are the rest of their responses:

Did anyone question the nepotism under Joe Mann, and now under Chiquita Stephenson? If not, why not?

Harris: I only know of one of (former CEO and President Joe Mann’s) family members working there and that person was hired prior to him leading NEON. Some of us did question the hiring of his ex-wife, more so because the plan for Haviland Street (NEON’s thrift shop) was to be an extension of its workforce and employment training program.

While I was on the board I wasn’t aware of (interim CEO and president Chiquita Stephenson) having any family members on NEON’s payroll, but we weren’t necessarily aware of the names of  non-administrative staff that were hired.

Davis: Some questioned hiring Joe’s wife, but I wasn’t aware that Chiquita had relative working there.

Many things are coming out through audits, and people are wondering: Where was the board of directors that was supposed to be keeping an eye on this stuff?

Harris: Initially, we acted upon what was presented to us. I don’t think we were the type of group to crucify someone for a first offense.

We all make mistakes and probably give people second chances. I think we all felt that Joe was extremely committed and that the initial issues seemed like learning curve types of things. That said, we had specific questions if things didn’t add up.  We then asked for clarification or for more information.  Red flags were raised when that information was slow to come.

Davis: It wasn’t that some board members didn’t ask questions.  It was that the questions often went ignored.

Why is NEON not being more forthcoming with DSS regarding its demands for accountability?

Harris: It would be my understanding that NEON is cooperating with DSS, as DSS chose the person to temporarily act in Joe’s stead. There was, until recently, a liaison between the board and DSS.

Davis: I’m not aware that NEON is not being forthcoming.

Why is no one demanding a full disclosure about Chiquita’s academic credentials and the apparent false statement regarding her political science degree on her resume?

Harris: It is hard for me to imagine that Chiquita would lie about her credentials. Nevertheless, I cannot answer that question as I am no longer on the board. She was in place as director of development and public relations when I came on board.

Davis: That might be a question for the new board.

With such a large and complex budget and so many 501 (c) 3 rules and state and federal rules, why has the board (with members of Norwalk’s government in place) not demanded an accounting professional be brought on board to handle the books?

Harris: There were good and well-intentioned board members and I think we all learned quite a bit being on the NEON Board.  The board was and is a microcosm of society at large. Some board members did investigate things as they arose.  Don’t think otherwise; however, when it came down to the voting, the majority ruled.

I think eventually we all agreed that Joe should step down. By then audits were upon us. The staff were completely cooperative and we tried to implement corrective action as things were revealed to us.

Davis: This did come up and we did hire a firm, but things got a bit convoluted with the audits and other things going on.


One response to “NEON’s former board members offer insight into the past”

  1. Norwalk Lifer

    I am impressed that these two women came forward and answered questions, the time to heal is now, there are many people who are part of our city would want to lift themselves out of poverty and the never ending cycle of dependency on assistance.

    Those people, just like those who come to this country under HB-1 visas, deserve the promise of American exceptionalism; no matter what the birth right, there is an opportunity to grow. What I read here is two women who understand that, trying to shed light on what has been conjecture, speculation, supposition for a long time. They did not resign as a result of this event, they did not have to come forward and answer questions. I don’t see any rationalization of what transpired in their words. I see an attempt to help others in the community understand where the breakdown occurred. I applaud them for their forthright and clearly un-varnished responses.

    We could all take a lesson from this.

    Norwalk Lifer

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