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SoNoCC interim director fired as tensions boil over; board chairman Peña on leave

Pat Ferrandino goes through a book of newspaper articles detailing the history of the South Norwalk Community Center in this file photo.
Pat Ferrandino goes through evidence he had collected

NORWALK, Conn. – There were celebrations in parts of South Norwalk Monday – a $30 million grant for Washington Village, and a ground breaking at The Pearl – but at 198 South Main St., there was upheaval.

There was a protest, a board meeting, and a metaphorical blood-letting at the South Norwalk Community Center headquarters. When the fog cleared, the South Norwalk Community Center was without several free community programs, its interim executive director and, at least for now, its chairman of the board.

Over the past several weeks, an internal struggle between Chairman of the Board Warren Peña and Executive Director Marina Forero-Ferrandino and her husband, Deputy Director Pat Ferrandino, had grown into a major tug-of-war, leading to Forero-Ferrandino being removed from her executive director position, to be replaced on an interim basis by her husband, Pat Ferrandino, who had been deputy director.

Forero-Ferrandino June 9 Letter

The couple has been working in those capacities for about a year without pay. During that time, and with Peña as chairman, SoNoCC began to establish itself as a major resource for the Latino community in spite of their very public battles with Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON), with whom they shared the building. With NEON heading into Chapter 7 bankruptcy, after which it will cease to exist, SoNoCC was working toward a bid to become the new CAP agency for the area, a one-stop-shopping place for social services.

SoNoCC also struck a deal with Norwalk Public Schools to host an After the Bell program to give South Norwalk children a safe and supervised place to go after school, and has been working toward taking over the former NEON summer camp next summer. The camp will be run this summer by the Carver Foundation.

Still, the internal battle grew. Forero-Ferrandino established an outside 501(c)(3) non-profit agency to provide free programs for SoNoCC. The popular programs included music training for local youths. After Forero-Ferrandino was removed from her leadership post, she continued to provide the programs.

This all came against the backdrop of allegations of financial improprieties against Peña by both Ferrandinos, culminating in a June 21 memo from Forero-Ferrandino to the board calling for Pena’s removal.

Meanwhile, Peña and the rest of the board, including Vice Chairman and Agent Ed Camacho, were concerned that Forero-Ferrandino’s non-profit, Impact Others, presented a conflict of interest for the center and Ferrandino. Peña also said it was seen as a conflict by Tricia Massucco, the program manager for SoNoCC’s After the Bell program, which is in partnership with Norwalk Public Schools. He said the situation could jeopardize the partnership.

Citing the memo and other communications with board and staff members, Peña accused Forero-Ferrandino of attempting to ruin his reputation with false accusations.

Forero-Ferrandino and her programs were terminated June 25.

June 25 Forero-Ferrandino termination

Peña then accused Ferrandino, who had signed a memorandum of understanding to take over as interim director for 90 days, of writing his wife’s letter and of insubordination, among other things. Peña issued a 12-point letter to the board explaining why Ferrandino needed to be terminated, and wrote the termination letter, thanking Ferrandino for his service and accusing him of insubordination and conflict of interest.

June 30 Ferrandino termination letter

June 30 Letter from the Chairman

The termination was effective immediately.

The letters were presented to the board and to Ferrandino at a Board of Directors executive session at SoNoCC Monday evening as about 30 protesters demonstrated outside in support of Forero-Ferrandino and calling for Peña’s removal. When the chairman arrived, protesters followed him inside and confronted him and the board.

“They refused to leave,” Ferrandino said late Monday night. The protesters wanted to know why the programs Forero-Ferrandino ran had been cancelled.

“Warren said it was because of the construction” planned to ready the center for the fall’s After the Bell program.
“That’s complete nonsense,” he said. “Americares is going to continue to operate. From the 7th to 11th of July, there’s the Youth Workforce Training Program. There are a number of rentals, including one booked by Warren – LUC (Latinos Unidos de Connecticut) on July 16.”

Ferrandino said SoNoCC is not close to being ready to start construction, which he was to supervise.

“The building permit not even pulled yet,” he said. “The bidding was closed last Thursday. I met today with the builder to try to work out pricing. The bids were $35,000 higher than the original plan. The work will only include the area of the school.”

Monday night there was no word about if or when the programs would return. Ferrandino said the musical recorder class, run by volunteers, would resume in Ryan Park when it is not raining.

Peña said Monday night, “I have taken a leave to focus on my State Rep bid.”

The former Common Councilman is challenging fellow Democrat Bruce Morris for the right to represent the 140th District in the state General Assembly. Morris, attempting to win a fifth term, is the party nominee, having beaten Peña, 222-99, in a May election. Pena secured enough petition signatures to force a primary election Aug. 12.

Peña also addressed the allegations leveled against him by the Ferrandinos.

“The allegations of impropriety are baseless,” he said. “Pat and Marina are simply upset because the board moved in a different direction.”

Comments

22 responses to “SoNoCC interim director fired as tensions boil over; board chairman Peña on leave”

  1. Pat Ferrandino

    I find it truly amazing how a lawyer and a politician can spin a benevolent suggestion of providing free programming to the community into some sinister plot. When tensions between SoNoCC’s Chairman, Warren Pena, and its Executive Director (my wife), Marina Forero, escalated, I suggested informally to the Board of Directors (after speaking with her) that perhaps it might be best that Marina step aside from her role at SoNoCC but continue to provide the wonderful programming she had nurtured for the community through a separate 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization that had already been instrumental in bringing to SoNoCC the highly successful SafeRides program. This solution would have allowed SoNoCC and the wonderful families that it serves to seamlessly continue to receive the unique program offerings FREE OF CHARGE while dissipating the internal tensions. It was during this time frame that Board members suggested that I take over as Interim Executive Director.
    Instead, today we have two dedicated volunteers, my wife and myself, who together have logged in more than 5,000 free hours at SoNoCC, booted out to the dismay of those wonderful families who desperately tried to convince the Board members to reverse their decision and allow us to continue our work of love. These families have done so by demonstrating at SonoCC and by signing a Petition. To date, more than 250 individuals have signed the Petition. This spontaneous show of support was not suggested or orchestrated by us but, rather, was a unified effort on the part of the families.
    We have not given up hope and, until a suitable venue is found, the children’s music classes will be held outdoors, behind SoNoCC, at Ryan Park.

  2. John Hamlin

    This is all confusing and makes no sense. What’s the real story?

  3. New Era

    so whats going to really happen?

  4. LWitherspoon

    SoNoCC’s web site lists just four board members: Warren Pena, Edwin Camacho, Oscar Destruge, and Nathalia Gonzales. I would be concerned about any non-profit which had such a small board.
    .
    “This all came against the backdrop of allegations of financial improprieties against Peña by both Ferrandinos, culminating in a June 21 memo from Forero-Ferrandino to the board calling for Pena’s removal.”
    .
    What were the allegations against Mr. Pena?

    1. Mark Chapman

      @LWitherspoon

      Click the link for the June 9 letter from Forero-Ferrandino.

  5. potaxpater

    why is it for hispanics only thats the problem, it needs to be for americans. close it down.

  6. Casey Smith

    Is someone from one of the daily soap operas writing the script for 98 South Main?

    Actually, I’d be interested in hearing what the accusations regarding Mr. Pena were, also.

    1. Mark Chapman

      @Casey Smith

      Click the link for the June 9 letter from Forero-Ferrandino, in which she details her concerns to the board.

  7. Tim D

    Mrs. Forero-Ferrandino should be applauded for stepping aside in the greater interests of the people served. She sets an excellent example. The rest of the this crew should follow her out the door. Not on a temp leave, but for good! Because it seems as if the tension between these groups is too great to overcome. And that includes the ancillary relationships with the NEON people – who should also follow suite.

    1. Mark Chapman

      @TimD

      The NEON people are out the door as the non-profit heads into Chapt. 7 bankruptcy.

  8. LWitherspoon

    The article notes that Marina Forero-Ferrandino and Pat Ferrandino served as Executive Director and Deputy Director strictly on a volunteer basis. So the SoNoCC board has ‘fired’ two people who were serving the organization for free on close to a full-time basis. What charitable organization in its right mind would do such a thing?
    .
    I was confused by the article’s lack of detail regarding the allegations against Warren Pena, until I read the June 9 letter by Marina Forero-Ferrandino, SoNoCC’s former Executive Director, linked above.
    .
    Ms. Forero’s shocking allegations include the following:
    .
    1. In 2013, Ms. Forero discovered $25,000 missing from SoNoCC’s account, which was under the care of then-SoNoCC Executive Director Josie Castillo, who is also Warren Pena’s aunt and godmother. Forero insisted that the money be replaced and Ms. Castillo resign, both of which happened.
    .
    2. Luis Miranda, former board Vice Chair, was in charge of renting the center’s multi-purpose room for outside events. Mr. Miranda was paid in cash by renters for providing “Security” at the events and for any extended time. To Ms. Forero’s knowledge, none of the cash was ever recorded, deposited, or used for the benefit of SoNoCC.
    .
    3. Ms. Forero reviewed SoNoCC’s approved application for a $100,000 Community Development Block Grant and suspected that it “may be laden with potentially fraudulent misrepresentation.”
    .
    4. In November 2013, Mr. Pena used a SoNoCC debit card to order printed materials and pizza for a “Get Out the Vote” campaign, and paid telephone canvassers with another $1,600 in SoNoCC funds, without Board authorization. Ms. Forero believes these actions may have been a conflict of interest and also may have jeopardized SoNoCC’s status as a 501c3 organization. I believe Ms. Forero’s concerns are related to the fact that there are strict rules limiting political activity by 501c3 organizations.
    .
    5. Mr. Pena spent $1,000 of SoNoCC funds on the SoNoCC Board’s Christmas Dinner. Who was there and what did they eat? As I mentioned above, the SoNoCC Board consisted of just four people before Mr. Pena’s leave of absence. $1,000 is a lot of money for just four people to have dinner.
    .
    6. Mr. Pena spent $1,000 of SoNoCC funds on inviting guests to SoNoCC’s table at the Mayor’s Ball. Who were the guests at SoNoCC’s table?
    .
    Five and six are deeply disturbing if true because at the time, NEON was in crisis and SoNoCC didn’t even have the money to compensate its Executive Director and Deputy Director, who were serving as volunteers. A four-person board of a charity organization that’s having financial difficulties should not spend $2000 on dinners for itself and presumably a few volunteers.
    .
    When Travis Simms claimed there were financial irregularities at SoNoCC, many including me responded that unless Mr. Simms substantiated his allegations with detail, the allegations did not seem credible. Ms. Forero has detailed potential irregularities.
    .
    Each one of the above allegations merit further investigation. I hope NoN will continue to shine a light on possible improprieties by Warren Pena as Chairman of SoNoCC. Certainly there’s more to this story than simply accepting Warren Pena’s response that “The allegations of impropriety are baseless”.

  9. Tim D

    @Mark Chapman – I am aware of the NEON status, however my point is meant on a grander scale as it’s easy to see how most of these operators will continue to try and influence and/or dictate the how the new agencies will offer services and we can’t have that.

    @LWitherspoon – excellent points, it would be nice to get some answers.

    1. Mark Chapman

      @Tim D

      Some of the NEON names have indeed been mentioned in connection with attempts to form a new agency. From discussions we have had with various sources, anyone with those connections may well find a lot of resistance to their involvement.

  10. Things that makes u go hmmmm

    Watch and see the players that is at these things. More still to come something smells fishy

  11. EveT

    The allegations against Pena are pretty hair-raising. You’d think that would put an end to his chances of winning the Democratic primary against Morris, but who knows. At the very least, it seems like poor strategy for him to fire the Ferrandinos, and get all these people mad at him, 6 weeks before the election.
    It’s also strategically problematic for Camacho to take over as Chairman of the Board, given that he already has what some consider a conflict of interest being on the BET as well as Dem Town Committee chairman. If Camacho was a SoNoCC board member during the Christmas season, did he attend the Christmas dinner and sit at the SoNoCC table at the Mayor’s Ball? Did he know these events were being paid for with scarce SoNoCC funds?
    This just looks ugly from whatever viewpoint you choose.

  12. Bea

    @Lwhitherspoon- great points. Looks bad and smells bad. Pena just lost a lot of the Latinos’ votes. It is always sad to see Latinos against Latinos. They should be putting all this energy in helping the community.

  13. Bill

    Why would anyone invest their hard earned money with Pena when he allegedly uses the SoNoCC money for personal use. I would be scared to invest my money with this guy.

  14. One and Done.

    The only logical move now would be for Harry to put Pena on Zoning. That’s how this group rolls.
    .
    It shouldn’t be too difficult for NON to dig up the guest list for the Mayor’s ball. If they want to that is.
    .
    The Mayor’s ball impropriety at least is probably the only legal thing mentioned in the accusations. Where are the city’s prosecutors on this? Does anyone ever get investigated and indicted for stealing from the poor in our society?

  15. One and Done.

    @LWitherspoon. While you are deeply disturbed by 5 and 6, they may actually be legal expenses if not ethical ones.
    .
    However, 1 thru 4 if true would mean laws were broken and not just of the misdemeanor type. Let’s see what happens. It seems status quo that it is ok to steal from the most needy in this city without any accountability.

  16. Norwalk Cares

    The lengths to protect Warren Pena are astounding.
    Pena uses a get out the vote campaign to further his own political interests. He’s protected by Camacho, so he agrees (one year later) to pay back the cost of what was printed. Pena has a “get out the vote meeting” at SNCC that was a campaign event for Vinny Mangiacopra. Once again, SNCC is Pena’s secret campaign resource- it’s sad that Atty. Camacho refuses to hold Pena accountable. Does loyalty to a DTC member mean more than doing what’s right?

  17. TG

    Can anyone clarify why Forero-Ferrandino’s non-profit presented a COI?

  18. loveforthecity

    Pat and Marina Ferrandino lied to the Norwalk community.

    Allegation: Board Christmas Party Dinner $1,000

    Truth: $598

    Allegation: $485 Courtesy dinner for help with grant application.

    Truth: $114

    Stay tuned for more of the truth and more of Ferrandino lies.

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