NEON to name new CEO

NEON 103013 039
NEON interim CEO and president Chiquita Stephenson has been placed on an unpaid leave of absence, state Sen. Bob Duff said.

Updated, 10:37 p.m., employees furloughed, comments from Mike Berkhoff.

NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk’s state legislators and Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) Board of Directors Chairman Michael Berkoff said Wednesday night that the interim leader of a South Norwalk anti-poverty agency would be replaced Thursday night.

The action comes less than 24 hours after NEON interim President and CEO Chiquita Stephenson was placed on unpaid leave one day after employee paychecks bounced.

Berkhoff said Wednesday night that NEON board members will appoint a new CEO Thursday and that most of NEON’s employees have been furloughed for an indefinite period.

NEON’s board will hold a special meeting Thursday evening in Stamford to discuss the situation with employee paychecks and the status of NEON’s child development programs, according to a press release from NEON. Berkhoff said the meeting will begin with an executive session, after which he will announce the new leader.

A source said the candidate under consideration is the Rev. Tommie Jackson of Stamford’s Faith Tabernacle Baptist. Berkhoff had no comment. He did say that the candidate has experience in turning around this type of situation.

Berkhoff said in a Wednesday afternoon statement that the board is putting a new management team in place.

“We deeply regret the current situation of NEON,” he said in the statement. “We are going to do what’s best for the children, families and staff.”

He said wrong decisions had been made for issuing paychecks.

“Over the last week we have held in-house meetings with Mrs. Stephenson with recovery and payments owed to NEON, which have led to the current situation,” he said in the statement. “From Oct. 27, through present, management failed to provide the board with accurate answers about the financial situation. This has resulted in my call for a Board Meeting Nov. 7th to make decisions regarding current management and future direction at NEON.”

NEON’s Head Start program was suspended last week by the U.S. Department of Human and Health Services Administration for Children and Families (ACF). Stephenson and NEON have been negotiating to work out an arrangement with Community Development Institute (CDI), the agency appointed to take over NEON’s Head Start program while continuing to run a child development program for the children enrolled in Head Start.

Monday, employees were made to wait for paychecks for the third time this fall. The checks were not handed out until after midnight, and employees were unable to cash them. One was told by a Citibank employee that there were insufficient funds in the account, another that the check was not valid.  Other NEON employees told of co-workers stranded in Waterbury and Ohio because the expected money from their checks was not available.

That was the last straw, Duff said.

“This has been an ongoing problem for many, many months. Many of us have been working in the background – legislators, Congressman Himes’ office, the Malloy administration – behind the scenes for many many months to try and right the ship and help NEON to be able to deliver services to families and children and be able to pay their staff,” he said. “It was apparent yesterday when checks bounced that we were at a breaking point. Therefore, we wanted to let the community know that we have been working on this for months and we want to continue to work hard to open up Head Start or whatever the new program is called. We want to ensure that stays open to deliver the services that are needed and that staff is paid.”

Duff said that “Department of Labor Rapid Response people” were at NEON.

“I don’t know what that would necessarily mean from the standpoint of how fast that would deliver checks,” he said.

He said that state legislators don’t have any direct authority over NEON. “However, we are working closely with Congressman Himes’ office and the Malloy administration. Most of the authority lies with the executive branches at all three levels of government,” he said in an email.

Stephenson refused comment to the press Tuesday as NEON employees waited to talk to them about their invalid paychecks. She promised “answers” after holding a staff meeting but then refused.

An employee said Stephenson was “grandstanding” during the hour-long staff meeting, from which Head Start workers emerged in tears. She was quoted by one as telling them that NEON was “being raped by people who do not see the love and the care.”

Monday evening, as NEON employees waited to get their paychecks, Stephenson initially refused comment. Caught in a hallway by this reporter as she emerged from a staff meeting, she said, “Why don’t you go to the Housing Authority and why don’t you ask them how many people they have on furlough? Why don’t you go to the Housing Authority and ask them about nepotism? Ask them why do they have the director that’s at Housing Authority and the wife working in the same capacity? You’ve got a lot of communities, you’ve got a lot of things happening, and as our organization is trying to restructure everybody wants to keep it in the paper. Right now our staff is getting ready to be taken care of while a media group is blowing it out of proportion. So ask that question.”

That was before telling employees they would not be paid.

A NEON employee who described herself as a shop steward said the problem with the paychecks was “stolen funds.”

“I can’t sugar coat it,” she said. “You can’t say misappropriated because when we speak to the funding source the funding sources say money has been given. So if money has been given and it’s not been put into our property what do you call it but stealing?”

“I am reaching out to anyone that can help and assist families to be fed,” she said. “I myself, thanks to my mom I am able to stand my ground but others don’t have that support. … Because this is election day we cannot get help from our elected officials.”

Former NEON board member Susan Weinberger hailed the latest development.

“To survive and fulfill its vital mission, NEON must change,” she said in an email. “Only a wholesale change in management will ensure the survival of the agency. The fact that Ms. Stephenson is on a leave of absence is a good first step in that direction. In order to better meet the needs of the precious children and families served by NEON, I hope that the agency will now replace its entire top management in favor of a trusted, transparent transition team with a proven track record. Only then will NEON be able to rebuild. We deserve nothing less!”


41 responses to “NEON to name new CEO”

  1. LWitherspoon

    “Norwalk’s state legislators took decisive action Wednesday morning…”
    Do you know for a fact that Norwalk’s state legislators caused this ‘decisive’ action? I don’t see that reported anywhere, only that they spoke at a press conference. How did they effect Ms. Stephenson’s removal?
    Did anybody ask those state legislators why they didn’t act sooner?

  2. Lori

    NEON is a non profit agency run for the community and yet there is a total and complete black out of what the heck is going on. This is a major issue, a major historic turning point and huge story for Norwalk. NON has extremely limited resources but is the only source we have. Lets all support NON with a contributiion so they can continue to dig deeper and get the info we need. The the other print and net local news sites are failing horribly and nothing is expected to change. If you want to know whats going on, here is the place. Please support INDEPEDENT Journalisim. NON is our ONLY true source for whats going on in Norwalk. And for those that say that its is biased here, crow crap, total crow crap. Not even in the comments. All opinions and feelings are published if the comments do not violate the TOS rules, which are fair and NON goes way out of its way to be just that, FAIR. It is what it is and thats how it gets published,(at NON). Opinions by the editorial staff are clearly marked as opinions and we all have an opinion and all are welcomed to share it, here. NEON is an embarassment to all of us. Lets get this turned around and post haste. Enough already. Those that stand by and duck for cover, shame on you. NEON needs help,our help, all our help. Now lets get to it. Holdiday’s are fast approaching. People need these vital services; Head Start, Reentry, Heating assistance. Cmon Norwalk. Let’s get going.

  3. WHAT?

    Hey Berkhoff, are we supposed to buy your routine now that all the cows are out of the barn?
    Where are all your ‘like-minded’ people now? For those who don’t recall, Berkhoff called for ‘like-minded’ replacements for the board members that left en massse a month ago, whom he labeled ‘naysayers.’ Let’s recall: they were naysayers because they claimed they could not get trustworthy financial info out of Chiquita, or any other truthful information.
    Now that Berkhoff’s inexplicable backing of her was forced to be called off by local powers he says he did not receive accurate financial info starting on 10/27, as opposed to starting when all the exiting board members stated the same thing over a month ago? Hmmmm … why would that be? Answer: board members are personally liable under the law for failure to pay wages. As the owner of a liquor store that’s probably about the only thing he does know. So, seeing that he backed Stephenson right into possible criminal charges for himself he now suddenly says he got inaccurate information and picks a date of 10/27, which conspicuously gives him a cover story for the pay period he could be arrested for — I think we now know that he is referring to himself when he refers to knowing a ‘turnaround specialist.’
    Hey, Berkhoff, has your buddy Jack O’Dea brought any other good projects to sign up for, bet you’re glad you followed him into battle. Why don’t the two of you go back to Stamford where you belong and stop pretending you care about any of this now that your co-conspirator Chiquita has been found out for all to see?

  4. SoNoCC

    This morning more than one hundred parents and children showed up at 98 South Main Street in protest over NEON’s shutdown of the “alterative to HeadStart daycare” that was promised to its clients. The group gathered on the first floor of the building. Police were called by an unknown source but, after assurances from SoNoCC that the group would be allowed to remain at our first floor space, the police cordially agreed to leave without incident. After being told by a NEON employee that an announcement was being made at HeadStart’s site at Nathanial Ely School, about half of the group left. The remaining 50 or so parents and children remained in SoNoCC’s multi-purpose room and were fed lunch, compliments of our volunteer staff.
    SoNoCC is in touch with the Connecticut Department of Social Services and with fellow members of Norwalk ACTS to try and mitigate the situation. Although we are encouraging parents to try and find alternative arrangements until the HeadStart issue is resolved, we will continue to receive families in need of our services and a caring hand.

  5. Casey Smith

    @ WHAT? -“buy your routine now that all the cows are out of the barn?”
    I think the metaphor is supposed to be the horses are out of the barn.
    Interesting General Comment….”Caught in a hallway by this reporter as she emerged from a staff meeting, she said, “Why don’t you go to the Housing Authority and why don’t you ask them how many people they have on furlough? Why don’t you go to the Housing Authority and ask them about nepotism? Ask them why do they have the director that’s at Housing Authority and the wife working in the same capacity? You’ve got a lot of communities, you’ve got a lot of things happening, and as our organization is trying to restructure everybody wants to keep it in the paper.”
    Sounds like someone is on the hot seat and doesn’t like it very much, so the old misdirection technique is being used. The reason NEON is in the news is because the NEON administration was kiting checks. Like it or not, it’s classified as fraud.
    I feel for those staff members stranded without funds. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt and don’t ever want to visit there again.
    Sadly, this has gone on for SO long, I’m baffled as to how to even begin to fix it. It ain’t just broke, it’s shattered. Where does one start? Is there a donation fund where people can contribute to help the staff (i.e. workers issued rubberized checks) until this mess gets straighten out? There must be some creative minds in Norwalk that can sort out this mess.

  6. Lifelong Teacher

    I have always found that the best defense is a good offense. Looks like that’s what Miss Chiquita is doing now. Next stop should be criminal charges.

    Shame on our city that this travesty has gone on for so long.

  7. Oldtimer

    Nobody wants to believe money has been stolen, and I hope a thorough investigation shows that is not what happened. There is no question NEON needed a much better money management program a long time ago. There is also no question trying to manage programs for the last couple of years counting on the 2.6 million held back by the City to eventually show up was a mistake. Hopefully, a new administration will be able to help get NEON up and running again without all the drama.

  8. Dawn

    I feel for the employees. They ate living paycheck to paycheck in so many cases. I know I could not afford to miss a paycheck. I hope that some one is looking out for them and send al the crooks to jail.

  9. Don’t Panic

    Can SoNoCC set up a fund and adminster it to a id the NEON employees? Seems they are now among your constituents.

  10. Oldtimer

    News of a new CEO is interesting, maybe even promising, but the real need seems to be for a CFO that really knows money management, accounting, and book keeping.
    Once they have somebody in place who can keep track of the pennies, then there is hope NEON can get back on track. If the City considers restoring the grant Moccia cut off, a new and very competent Chief financial officer should be a condition of the grant. Of course, any thieves should be prosecuted.

  11. I am wondering why Mann has been arrested yet…
    He is the very start of this whole mess.

  12. Oops “has NOT been..”

  13. SoNoCC

    @Don’t Panic: SoNoCC is in discussions with various entities to determine how best we can assist the community. It is our understanding that the State has a remedy for employee compensation issues. We are certainly sympathetic to NEON employees’ dilemma. SoNoCC, too, was abruptly cutoff by NEON as a sub-contractor of their Hispanic Human Resource Development (HHD) Program through CT’s Department of Social Services earlier this year. Although we are not being compensated, we continue to provide the services of the contract. Much more info will be made available in the coming days.

  14. LWitherspoon

    No call from you for a forensic audit? Why not?

  15. EveT

    Issuing fraudulent checks is a serious crime. Doesn’t matter what kind of excuse the perpetrator gives.

  16. The Norwalker

    Why bring in a Reverend as the new CEO, Neon is not a Faith based Organization or a Christian one?

  17. The Norwalker

    I do think that NEON deserves some funds for the Headstart/Daycare serves provided in prior months, at least enough to pay back the other programs whose funds were miss used to keep the daycare open.

  18. M Allen

    I keep wondering about the fiduciary responsibility of the board throughout the years. Allowing management to acting as they have without doing anything about it would seem to be incongruent with appropriate board oversight. Interestlying, there seems to be a high degree of immunity in terms of civil liability for members of the Board. The following is from the State of CT website. I don’t know if this has changed or not.


    The 1997 federal Volunteer Protection Act (VPA) establishes a minimum level of protection for volunteers (including directors, officers, and trustees) of nonprofit organizations and government entities, for harm caused by their acts or omissions if:

    1. the volunteer was acting within the scope of his responsibilities;

    2. the volunteer, if necessary, was properly licensed, certified, or authorized to act;

    3. the resulting harm was not willful, criminal or reckless misconduct, gross negligence, or a conscious, flagrant indifference to the rights or safety of the person harmed; and

    4. the resulting harm was not caused by a volunteer operating a vehicle, vessel, or aircraft for which the state requires an operator’s license and insurance (42 U.S.C. § 14503(a)).

    The protection extends to volunteers who perform services for a nonprofit organization or government entity and receives (1) no compensation or (2) nothing of value in lieu of compensation in excess of $500 per year. State law can provide more protection or preempt the VPA by explicitly stating that it does not apply (42 U.S.C. § 14502). Connecticut has not done so, thus the VPA applies in Connecticut.

    The VPA does not shield a nonprofit organization from liability or from being sued. It protects volunteers from being named directly in lawsuits (except in cases of willful or wanton misconduct).

    The Connecticut legislature abolished the common law doctrine of charitable immunity in 1967 (CGS § 52-557d). Charitable immunity provided a charitable organization a complete defense to tort liability.

    The legislature later enacted statutory immunity for a nonprofit organization’s unpaid directors, officers, and trustees (PA 86-338, § 10, and PA 87-227, § 7). The law grants civil liability immunity to an uncompensated director, officer, or trustee of a nonprofit tax-exempt organization for damage or injury resulting from an act, error, or omission in the course of his policy- or decision-making responsibilities as long as he acts in good faith and within the scope of his official functions. No immunity is available if the resulting harm is caused by his reckless, willful, or wanton misconduct (CGS § 52-557m).

  19. life-long Norwalker

    @The Norwalker. Even Reverend have to work. So do you mean all Christians and Pastors can stay home and you’ll pay for us. SMH at that comment.

  20. Paul

    I’m not into conspiracy theories by any means, but does anyone find it strange that nobody got involved until after the election in Norwalk? This problem has been going on for quite a bit of time and all of a sudden it was taken care of?

  21. malcolm

    Why is the CFO not being mentioned in all of this chaos? Are you telling us that she didn’t know the financial situation? Where is her integrity? She should have been shouting from the rooftops……or was she too afraid of loosing her cushy $90k job.

    Oh, and how about Mary Mann? Chiquita doesn’t move unless she is standing by her side. And, Pat Wilson-Pheanious, snake lady, who started the ball rolling. These four unscrupulous women need to do some serious jail time.

    Love to see their updated resumes: brought anti-poverty agency to its knees in record time.
    Can’t wait to see

  22. malcolm

    Is the Reverend the start of a new age of cronyism? Isn’t he from Stamford? Why haven’t they enlisted the aid of DSS in appointing a new CEO? Someone with qualifications this time. make sure he has documents in hand before appointing to CEO position.

  23. Oldtimer

    Forensic audit may well be in order, but it sounds like nobody down there knows what came in and what was legitimately spent and possibly charged to the wrong account. Once they get somebody in there who is both competent and honest, we will see what develops. If there is really money missing then will be the time to call for forensic audits if where the missing money went is not determined by normal accounting.

  24. Don’t Panic

    Of course there are remedies but it sounds like these folks could use help now.
    I remember the shenanigans NEON pulled on SNCC with the grant. Ultimately those were management decisions. The folks needing their weekly checks are not to blame.
    I ask because it seems to me that SNCC is well-positioned to become a real resource to the community apart from NEON. It is an endorsement not a criticism.

  25. amazed

    The last thing NEON needs is any help from DSS they are responsable for the famous Patricia Wilson Pheanious. Things might have been bad before Pat arrived but she managed to run the place into the ground.
    Pat was the CEO when Chiquita was making all the questionable decisions.

  26. malcolm


    Pat Wilson-Pheanious was paid through DSS. She was recruited by CAFCA and they recommended and pushed for her to replace Joe Mann, not DSS. Joe was the president of CAFCA at the time. See some connection here? Remember also that Pat approved all of Chiquita’s questionable decisions. Pat had no original thoughts during her tenure. She was so accustomed to having “gophers” do all her bidding that Chiquita fit right in. The blind leading the dumber.

  27. SoNoCC

    @Don’t Panic,
    We appreciate your vote of confidence. SoNoCC has advised the DSS that we stand Ready, Willing and Able to take over the management of certain programs that have now been officially stripped from NEON. The needs within the community still remain and we are committed to doing whatever we can to assist. Our ultimate goal is to provide the tools through educational initiatives that will enable our community members to become self-sufficient.

  28. amazed

    Will SoNoCC be serving the entire community or will the services be limited to latino population.

  29. The Norwalker

    @life-long Norwalker

    All I am worried about is that state funded programs being operated as if they were extensions of the Reverend’s Church. Also a organization like this could be perceived differently by the public if it’s leader was a religious leader who is very outspoken on religious topics.

  30. Norwalk Lifer

    @Norwalker, sounds like this man, who is also a Reverend, did a reconstruction in PA, so maybe he has the chops to organize the billings in arrears, there are many homeowners who have turned real estate they cannot sell into halfway houses; they get subsidized thru the state, thru NEON.

    If the funds were not properly petitioned for, then it sounds like this man has the experience to do just that.

    I am very glad he made transparent the funds withheld by the city; for one reason only, it reduces the speculative suppositions of those who consider NEON an “Evil Empire” in South Norwalk as deserving of destruction.

    This agency does a lot of good, and endured a lot of bad thru what is now in my view, considered incompetence; if there is malfeasance then there will be prosecution, but in most organizations, when an individual is incompetent, they are either removed or released from employment.

    The right moves are being made.

    Norwalk Lifer

  31. I thought for NEON to be compliant (as if NEON understands the definition) –
    they need to conduct a National search for a director.
    I understand this is “temp” but we all know how NEON works.

  32. @Norwalk Lifer,
    Never did the mayor try to hide the reason why the funds were not made to NEON and as for the new mayor – NO FUNDS until the whole org has been gutted and rebuilt and satisfies national funding first.
    To GIVE Neon that money would be a BAD move by the new mayor

  33. Don’t Panic

    That was a cheap shot.
    @the norwalker,
    Always a concern of mine as well, but its no reason to assume that this will be handled that way. He has clearly done this before and understands the requirements. I am a little more concerned that he seems to be putting the cart before the house in terms of getting funds. He suggests that there are outstanding vendor payments TO NEON. I think that is unlikely. He suggests that the first order of business is to reopen the spigot of government grants. But those grants were pulled for failing to meet the conditions of the grants. You Don’t get to call do-over on that.

  34. @Don’t Panic,
    Why is that a cheap shot? If it is the truth, then it should be out – remember TRANSPARENCY?
    I’m just waiting for SoNoCC to reply.

  35. Don’t Panic

    The grant issued to SNCC was specifically granted to assist the Hispanic community. Would you have had them do something different? NEONs management problem has cost them those funds also and they are still managing to serve the community. So yes. Cheap shot.

  36. @Don’t Panic,
    Wow, an honest question comes back with a tart reply…
    Would I have them do something differently – sure would. EVERYONE should benefit from the funds – wouldn’t people be in an uproar if there was an AGENCY just for “the white folks” down in SoNo…
    NEON is a lost cause and should be dismantled (or swept up because as one poster said “it just isn’t broke, it’s shattered”).

  37. SoNoCC

    @ Amazed and @ Irishgirl:

    For sake of clarification, SoNoCC and NEON are two completely separate entities. The only common bond is the co-ownership of the building at 98 South Main Street. @ Don’t Panic is correct in stating that the Connecticut Department of Social Services’ Hispanic Human Resource Development (HHD) Program funding is specific to the needs of the Hispanic community. Unfortunately, NEON was the recipient of those funds and abruptly cut off SoNoCC as a sub-contractor earlier this year. Subsequently, NEON lost the HHD contract and SoNoCC has requested the DSS to award the Program directly to us (approximate value of $78,000). SoNoCC has continued to manage the HHD Program, without compensation. Our Executive Director and Deputy Director both work here on a full-time basis, as volunteers.
    Although the origins of SoNoCC date back to the 1960’s under the auspices of St. Joseph RC Church, with a mission to “Assist the needs of the growing Hispanic population in South Norwalk”, we are now an unaffiliated 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization. We believe in the Chinese adage:

    Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day.
    Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

    With that, please allow us to share our Mission, Vision and Core Values:

    • Mission
    As an informational resource and service center, to enhance the quality of life among the local Latino community and the greater South Norwalk community at-large while celebrating our diverse cultures, through educational and economic initiatives, informational seminars, recreational and cultural activities.
    • Vision
    To be recognized as a leading local Agency, championing the needs of our Latino community and the greater South Norwalk community at-large, advancing its educational, economic and physical well being, helping its members achieve their highest potential as contributors to society.
    • Our Core Values
    The South Norwalk Community Center is committed to honoring these core values in fulfilling the goals of our mission and vision statements:
    Dignity and Respect

    If you share these values, we invite you to join us in volunteering your time.

  38. @SoNoCC
    Thanks for the clarification. And yes , I volunteer for organizations that I feel are worthy of my time and money.
    PS – Just a FYI in how to win people…
    It doesn’t bode well to close with a snarky remark by trying to guilt people into volunteering at your organization because your think yours is the be all to end all.

  39. SoNoCC


    Snarky remark? It wasn’t in any way intended to be. We only stated our values and invited you to join us in volunteering if you share these values. Our organization has had many shortcomings in the past and we are working diligently to improve and to better assist our community. Our invitation is sincere.

  40. M Allen

    It wasn’t snarky. Not even if you were inclined to read it that way. Seriously Irish, ya don’t have to find fault in every comment.

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