NORWALK, Conn. – The infighting at Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now spilled out into a Stamford hallway Wednesday night as deposed CEO Chiquita Stephenson defended her record, said she wouldn’t be made a “escape goat” and that “little so-called meetings” of board factions would not help the situation or the families in dire straits.
Stephenson, who maintains that she is still acting NEON CEO and president due to an illegal board vote, said that it was paperwork done under her watch that has made the struggling agency eligible for $1.2 million in funding for rebuilding purposes. But NEON board member Jack O’Dea said she bounced employee paychecks after being expressly told not to issue them. Stephenson’s replacement, the Rev. Tommie Jackson, said there is a “string of text messages” to back that up.
Stephenson arrived at NEON’s Stamford offices after NEON board Chairman Mike Berkoff called off Wednesday’s board meeting 25 minutes after it was scheduled to begin due to lack of a quorum. She handed board member Cynthia Bowser two mobile phones that belong to NEON and had been in her possesion, went into the board room and then came back out into the hallway.
She jumped into a conversation among Bowser, O’Dea, Berkoff and NEON founder Bobby Burgess when she heard Bowser suggest having a meeting just to clear the air, not for any business purpose but to work out personality issues.
“I don’t want to clear the air here because if you wanted to clear the air you would tell the truth and in telling the truth it would help the people,” she said. “You have so many families that are suffering… Just because people are not telling the truth because they were so busy being connected by having back door meetings. It’s unnecessary.”
Berkoff said NEON’s “crash” began before she took over.
“It doesn’t matter if the crash was before I took it over,” Stephenson replied. “We were supposed to get all the facts. We still got all the facts to help the people.”
Berkoff asked if the money was coming in at that point.
“Guess what?” Stephenson said. “You guys are ending up with $1.3 million now, it’s because of the work that was done to clear the deficiencies.”
“How come we couldn’t get the $1.3 million then?” Berkoff asked.
“You had to finish the documentation, which we did,” she said.
That documentation included “many past people” who are going to have to deal with it, she said.
“But nobody is going to have the opportunity to take my name and take me and use me as the reason why this transpired. But God knows. If every last one of you would tell the truth you had the information not to point fingers but to make a difference. You’ve got the information to help families regain an opportunity to restructure and rebuild their lives. Not with the BS that’s being said and the slander that’s people are being called. People aren’t being helped with that,” she said. “But there’s all the documentation which everybody has. Everybody sat at a table, opposed to in their little so-called meetings, and got together and went over it to be able to connect the social services to those that are unemployed, to those that need the education, to those that need the healthcare. It takes strong leadership to do that. It takes people to be in a position to say I was wrong and I apologize, but now that we know what can we do to get together and what can we do to fix it?”
After saying that “sidebar conversations” won’t solve the problems and help the families, Stephenson turned to go, saying, “You all care about your sidebar meetings but you won’t use me as an escape goat.”
After she left, O’Dea said Stephenson bounced about $200,000 in paychecks, after being told by Berkoff and a bank manager not to do it.
“You can’t be surprised when you’re asked to leave. It’s pretty simple,” he said.
Jackson stepped up to elaborate.
“Chiquita made an effort to get a line of credit, which was denied,” he said. “She issued the checks, despite the full warning and the direction of Mr. Berkoff not to do so. … There’s a string of text messages that will support that it was told to Chiquita not to do.”
Part of Stephenson’s conversation with board members is shown in the video below. Other issues described by board members are detailed in the story here.
Jackson has said in the past that Stephenson still had NEON property. An email from Gail Meaney of NEON’s Human Relations department said Stephenson’s paychecks were being withheld because she had not returned NEON property. After Stephenson turned over the phones, O’Dea told her there were checks for her.
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