Struggle to replace NEON starts with a state investigation

The Rev. Dr. Lindsay Curtis

NORWALK, Conn. – The shadow of scandal is clearly influencing attempts to create a new social services agency to pick up the pieces of the bankrupt Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON).

An investigation into potential wrong-doing at NEON is needed to reassure the community that the people involved in a new agency have the highest degree of integrity, said the Rev. Dr. Lindsay Curtis, who is involved in one local effort to create a new Community Action Program (CAP) agency.

That effort is looked at with concern by a state community action leader, who said Thursday that the utmost transparency is needed in the wake of NEON’s scandalous demise. Meanwhile Pat Ferrandino of the South Norwalk Community Center is advocating a “hub and spoke” idea for a decentralized agency that would not implode if one component collapsed, as he said was the problem with NEON.

Curtis said the state’s attorney in Hartford is investigating NEON. Mayor Harry Rilling confirmed that. “I have spoken with an agent of the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office – I am not able to comment further on that matter,” Rilling said in an email.

Curtis said questions need to be answered, questions that shouldn’t dog anyone trying to establish a new agency.

“I don’t see how you can do it without answering those questions,” he said. “We’re still moving forward with trying to reconstitute a CAP agency in Norwalk, but I want to try to answer as many questions and not be distracted from providing the services to people and still having to answer questions over what happened. The best way to do that is to have an outside investigation. I don’t want to be accused of anything other than trying to do this the right way.”

Curtis said Rilling, state Sen. Bob Duff (D-25), NEON founder and former CEO Bobby Burgess, state Rep. Bruce Morris (D-140) and the Rev. Tommy Jackson, NEON’s transitional CEO and president, have been involved in the move to form a group, which he said will be called “The Community Action Agency of Norwalk.”

That’s CAAN, a derivative of President Barack Obama’s “Yes we can” slogan, Curtis said. When the State’s Attorney certifies that even those who were involved with NEON are innocent of wrongdoing, the group will form articles of incorporation and a board of directors, hopefully with 21 members, he said.

But Curtis is aware of the “not so fast” component here – the Connecticut Department of Social Services (DSS) will eventually put out a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) for an agency to take over local social services. The purpose of forming the group is to be ready to respond to that RFQ, he said. The idea is that CAAN would be responsible only for Norwalk, Curtis said.

NEON merged with CTE of Stamford shortly before its downward spiral became public. The expense of that merger was cited as one of the biggest reasons for NEON’s overwhelming debt.

Whether CAAN has people who were involved with NEON is “totally up to the state’s attorney,” Curtis said.

The South Norwalk Community Center will be invited to participate, he said. “This is not about division, this is about unity. This is really about providing the services,” Curtis said.

“I think he’s got the best interests of the city at heart and he’s trying to provide the services that have been needed,” Rilling said Wednesday. On Thursday, he confirmed that he has been peripherally involved: “I have been in meetings with persons regarding the formation of a CAP agency.  I have been briefed on various issues, but have not been actively involved in forming any CAP agency,” Rilling wrote in an email.

Duff said Wednesday he had reached out to Jackson for information but had not heard back. In April, Duff said a new CAP agency would likely replace NEON, and he would want all the services to be available in Norwalk.

Curtis said he can’t give a time frame on any of this because it’s up to the state, which hasn’t yet issued an RFQ.

“Who knows, but perhaps six to eight months out, if that, maybe a little bit later. But as you probably are well aware, this is no easy process. It took a lot longer than I think we had anticipated even getting to the bankruptcy phase. The investigation is the second step. Then I suppose we could see the third step, the constitution of a CAP agency. There are a lot of pieces to this.”

Indeed. Connecticut Association for Community Action (CAFCA) Executive Director Edith Pollock Karsky indicated surprise Wednesday at Tuesday news reports that a new group expected to step in.

“I think clearly, with all the problems that that NEON has had in the past couple of years, I would really be much more comfortable in any new group if there was a real transparent process,” she said. “I almost feel like it has to be taken out of the hands of individuals and any sort of cast of characters that has been associated with the agency in the past and really begin with people who have no apparent conflicts of interest and are above and beyond reproach and have only the interest of the community – that’s the primary reason for being together.  I think it almost has to come from elected officials.”

No names other than Jackson or Curtis were released earlier this week.

Karsky emphasized the process of forming a new CAP agency, with a board of directors that is a third elected officials, a third people from the private sector and a third low income people from the community served by the agency. This can only begin when DSS puts out a RFQ, she said.

“This group may be a group that applies,” Karsky said, of CAAN. “Another group may be forming that applies, another Community Action Agency that is contiguous to area. In most states what happens is those agencies that have contiguous service areas apply.”

Rilling should begin the process, she said, inviting the right mix of people to a meeting that is open and transparent.

Moreover, CAP agencies these days are expected to cover an area that is larger than just Norwalk in order to save on administrative costs, she said.

“Of course people would want to have their own local service area that just involves one city, but that’s not how in this day and age, with federal and state funding being pulled back and lessened year by year, I don’t think it makes sense. I can understand how the merger of CTE and NEON wasn’t a merger that (inspired confidence). But that was started by two agencies trying to figure out how to operate with less administrative expenses. I guess they both had their own set of financial problems and no one was aware of those at the time.”

A single-community agency is not the trend, but it’s up to DSS, she said.

“I’m not sure if they would entertain just a single city Community Action Agency,” Karsky said. “They may, I don’t know. I haven’t spoken to anyone at DSS about that. I think that because of what has happened in the past, the local officials in the Stamford area and in the Norwalk area don’t want to see those areas combined, and I can understand that.”

Ferrandino said Tuesday that SoNoCC is interested in becoming the CAP agency for Norwalk. Karsky said she has spoken with him twice.

“That is another group that feels they know what is best for what the Community Action Agency looks like,” Karsky said. “What’s going on now in the community, especially with the division in the African American and Latino communities, it’s not a good approach for these different groups thinking they will serve different customers. I told Pat, with Community Action Agencies the only qualification for the people we serve is an income qualification. You can’t just be an agency that has a mission of serving the Latino community. He seems to be a very intelligent person who has really tried to think out, or who has really laid out his ideas of what should happen in the community. I understand he grew up there, but he doesn’t live there.”

“It was interesting that she would suggest that the South Norwalk Community Center is not capable of serving the community,” said Ferrandino, a New Canaan resident, and he pointed to SoNoCC’s relationship wiht Norwalk Public Schools as an example. NPS and SoNoCC will work together on an after-school program for all South Norwalk children at 98 S. Main St. starting in the fall.

The registration for NPS After the Bell program will be open and all inclusive, he said.

Ferrandino said a new CAP agency should be based in South Norwalk, where the greatest need is. But SoNoCC would also reach out to surrounding communities, such as Wilton and New Canaan, he said. As for Karsky’s concern that a CAP needs to be sprawling in order to keep down administrative costs, Ferrandino said the SoNoCC concept is lean and “very fine tuned.”

“Our concept of a Community Action Agency is one that would be decentralized but still would be a one-stop shop. The way we envision that is the executive management team would be very trim. Possibly an executive director, a deputy director, a development director, then you would have an accounting department led by a CPA, with accounts receivable, accounts payable people. Then you’d have case management personnel and maybe only a couple, three, that would be the initial screeners to determine the families’ needs.”

Social service agencies would subcontract through the new CAP and be given office space at the center, at 98 South Main St., he said.

“The hub and spoke concept is one that each spoke would be a program that a competent social service non-profit agency in the area would submit a proposal and be selected and would operate,” Ferrandino said. “If one of those spokes then became broken, the program would not run properly. The wheel keeps turning as opposed to what happened is NEON, when they became the jack of all trades, master of none, one program failed because of the miscalculation in funding and it imploded the entire organization.”

He has thought it out to the point of saying that the political component of the proposed 15-member tripartite board of directors would be the mayor and four Common Council members, two from each party. There would, “of course,” be diversity, he said.

“That is something that is lacking at NEON,” he said. While the majority of NEON’s clients were Latino, no one on the board or staff was Latino, he said.

He said he didn’t know anything about an investigation.

“I would hope that state officials would do their due diligence to understand exactly transpired at NEON and that if there were any irregularities, any misconduct, that those were involved are held accountable,” Ferrandino said. “I also believe that a Community Action Agency needs a fresh start in Norwalk. That includes any past players. Part of being able to properly serve those in need is the ability to move away from the problems of NEON’s past. Those problems and past scandals are not just recent.”

While Curtis spoke of needing to put together an organization untainted by NEON’s past, he also said Burgess was involved in CAAN. Burgess took over NEON in 1972 and retired from the organization in 2003. In the 1990’s, Burgess and NEON were hit with a succession of sexual harassment lawsuits. While there was no admission of guilt, NEON paid nearly half a million dollars to settle the suits.

“I believe that there are those who need to let go,” Ferrandino said, “and new leadership needs to emerge within the community to move the process forward. There’s been too many skeletons in the closet.”


We have attached here a document from the Nov. 13, 2013 DSS Audit final draft, in which CAFCA responds to allegations made by the then-NEON staff and Board of Directors. The inclusion is in response to a commenter who is insisting that it was CAFCA’s responsibility to monitor NEON. This document responds to that allegation, made at the time by NEON leadership.

CAFCA response to NEON Nov. 13 2013 DSS Audit Final Draft


25 responses to “Struggle to replace NEON starts with a state investigation”

  1. Vigilant

    If Norwalk residency is an issue -and I’m not saying it should be- I believe Rev. Curtis lives in Wilton. In terms of serving those in need, it’s not clear whether any of the groups posturing to become Norwalk’s new CAP agency have done a good job analyzing Norwalk’s service and program needs/gaps as well as census data : who lives where, race/ethnicity, ages, languages, etc. Pretty surprised, confused and disheartened to hear recently that Housing Authority doesn’t seem to have staff or bilingual resources to help those whose primary language is not English. Then again, if it’s just a mad scramble to go after the money, none of this matters, and Norwalk will probably end up back where it started, not good news for those in need.

  2. John Hamlin

    Sounds like the grip of corruption just can’t let go. Not enough to destroy one agency, now they want to control its successor. The answer has to be that no city funds will be permitted to go to any organization that isn’t a clean break from NEON and that doesn’t exclude all former NEON leaders and board members from its leadership. The former NEON leadership should use their own money to fund whatever organization they want to control. Time to break the cycle — whether it’s a cycle of incompetence or one of corruption. Enough! And an investigation into NEON finances should be conducted by law enforcement.

  3. EveT

    Could not help noticing that Connecticut Association for Community Action’s acronym (CAFCA) points out how Kafkaesque this situation is. NEON disintegrates, only to have some of its leaders regroup without any oversight or community involvement.
    Ms. Karsky is right: formation of a new agency needs to be a transparent process and a clean break from all those who were involved with running NEON.
    Thanks also for the history about the half-million-dollar sexual harassment settlement. Sheesh. You’d think Bobby Burgess would step aside after that.

  4. Oldtimer

    It was reported, before NEON merged with CFE from Stamford, that CFE had major financial problems and State agencies were urging the merger in the keeping CFE from collapsing. Neither agency seem to have benefited from the merger and, from what has been published, it seems both agencies collapsed in the bankruptcy. In any effort to replace NEON local leadership need to keep in mind there is a much bigger problem than just what we know about in Norwalk.

  5. EastNorwalkChick

    Anyone associated with the former NEON agency should be barred from this new agency, hopefully DSS will heed Ms. Karsky’s recommendation.
    The only agency that I could think of that would be capable of becoming the next CAP is the Carver Center. They have run a efficient, transparent non-profit for years and have helped a lot of people. They have just taken over the Summer Camp program, costing less than it ever did when NEON ran it. But they would have to change their bi-laws in order to comply with the requirements and I don’t think they want the hassle of dealing with the State and Feds.
    I’m not so sure that SoNoCC has the ability to take on something of this scale right now, I fear that it would turn into another NEON fiasco…

  6. Things that makes u go hmmmm

    We will see if the Carver can do this summer. Remember the a carver lost kids or left them on trips. And the cost for Carver summer camp is $200 per child until 3:30 and if you want your child to stay until 5:30 it’s $240 per child. And if you do the math of more then one child your paying a good amount of money and for what. Something smells fishy.

  7. Jlightfield

    Not so long ago the Community Health Center moved from South Norwalk to Connecticut Avenue. At the time, as they came before zoning, I questioned why they were moving from SoNo when it seemed that they were close to their clients. Larry Cross and his team responded with data. They had analyzed their service area and clients and determined that the move would improve service, not just be expanding into a larger facility, but that the new center would be in a bus line.
    Years later I stopped in to check on the data. Larry was kind enough to show me the current data which demonstrated increased service to a wider population.
    We already know the data from the recent census. We know there is need for social services. But Norwalk has taken a hands-off approach to how it targets serviced and resources to its citizens. Nearly $800k of Of the 1.2 million of CDGB funds goes to the Redevelopment Agency, yet we have little actionable data to show for it. No one can geo-target services because we haven’t developed the infrastructure to compile data to make decisions.
    A regional CAP agency would be beneficial to Norwalk and our economy. The working poor who commute to and from Norwalk should have access to services and resources that are good and convenient to access. Perpetuating the same old bad decisions based on anecdotal evidence is not the course of action we should pursue.

  8. Things that makes u go hmmmm

    CAFCA director is making points but CAFCA is a part of the problem that failed to monitor and they have a conflict. I hope the attorney general is Investigating DSS and CAFCA. Something smells fishy

    1. Mark Chapman

      @Things that makes u go hmmmm

      According to the DSS official response to NEON’s audit response with a similar statement, it is NOT CAFCA’s role to monitor.

  9. Casey Smith

    Mr. Ferrandino said, “I also believe that a Community Action Agency needs a fresh start in Norwalk. That includes any past players. Part of being able to properly serve those in need is the ability to move away from the problems of NEON’s past. Those problems and past scandals are not just recent.”
    You got that right on the money, Mr. Ferrandino. NEON is like a ball and chain attached to anybody who goes near it.
    @ Vigilant – Cut Norwalk Housing Authority some slack here. If you had asked anyone on the NHA staff last year at this time whether or not they would be involved in the Head Start program in the future, they would have said “What ever gave you that idea?” They had no warning, no chance to prepare and no paperwork from NEON. Now, they are scrambling to cover their bases and make sure the kids receive quality care. They’re in the process of hiring staff, or so I am told, so give them a chance to get things organized.

  10. Ms. ACA


    When it became clear that NEON’s Headstart program was in trouble, the NHA began the process of trying to become the Norwalk Headstart grantee. As soon as the RFP went out, the NHA sought our partners, crafted a proposal, and submitted the grant. The were not hoodwinked, they knew that they weren’t going to get the full amount because they were awarded the grant in January. The NHA was warned that the grant was not going to cover all 200 slots, and that they were going to have to obtain additional funds. But there were egos at play here in that they were pursuing a program from the ‘other’ agency that serves Norwalk’s low income population.

    Not only is the NHA scrambling to run Headstart, but do to mismanagement and out of date practices, they scramble to run all of their other programs too. If you don’t believe me, ask residents what they think about maintenance and general upkeep of the properties.

  11. Things that makes u go hmmmm

    For your information CAFCA is contracted by DSS to provide monitoring and training for all 11 community action agencies in the state of CT. The ironic part of this is that the executive director Edith karsky of CAFCA reports to all 11 Community Action Agency Presidents/CEOs whose agencies are also contracted by DSS. How do you tell your bosses that their agency is out of compliance and what do you say to the grantor the agency is good or bad? Conflict of interest at the taxpayers experience.

    There is documentation that clearly shows CAFCA s failure to facilitate its contract at the taxpayers experience.

    The financial Audit from DSS is worthless and misleading and it was do e to cover DSS mismanagement for decades. That’s one reason for the Attorney General to investigate DSS and CAFCA. The public should ask Dss to show the financial audit of CTE and NEON before the merger. I bet they can’t.

    Lets investigate each entity. The state of CT would be better of with all facts being laid out. If they are not don’t be surprised when official documents in black and white surface and the entire state is investigated.

    So many attacks with no facts l. All involved will soon learn why you should not take community people for granted.

    The truth hearts. Many of you should just prepare to apologize. The truth will prevail.

    Something smells fishy.

    1. Mark Chapman

      @Things that makes u go hmmmm

      Please see the attachment I have added to the end of the story, a pdf from the DSS Audit final draft, in which CAFCA specifically addresses the NEON leadership allegation you repeat here. It was among the many allegations NEON used in its argument that the failure of the agency was the fault of DSS, CAFCA, and the city of Norwalk, not of NEON management.

  12. Vigilant

    To clarify: Talking about helping Non-English speakers with regular old public housing application process & forms – nothing to do with Head Start.

  13. John Hamlin

    Very insightful. Good to take the larger view.

  14. LWitherspoon

    @Mark Chapman
    Whose job is it to monitor CAP agencies? I’m curious who allowed NEON to go multiple years without providing credible audited financials.

    1. Mark Chapman


      I believe it is DSS, but I will check for sure. It was the DSS audit — and a federal audit — that uncovered the mess. What we have not been able to nail down, with our limited resources and need to keep many balls in the air, is excatly why, when problems were first uncovered when Joe Mann was still in charge, there was not a greater response, including criminal investigation.

  15. LWitherspoon

    @Mark Chapman
    I’m also curious as to why the City of Norwalk, which provided only 10% of NEON’s budget, appears to have been the first funder and perhaps the only funder to demand credible audited financials as a condition for receiving any funds.
    Why did a state agency disbursing anti-poverty funds have such a lackadaisical attitude with respect to whether or not proper financial controls were in place? If what I suspect is true, axpayers and former NEON clients alike should be outraged.

  16. piberman

    What’s hard to understand is why City, state and federal agencies failed utterly to provide any financial oversight of a troubled agency known for years and years as poorly managed. What’s hard to understand is why successful minority City residents (we have quite a few) including professionals haven’t volunteered to guide NEON ? Were they turned away ? And if the same old team is running the show why expect better results ? What prevents the City from auditing NEON every quarter ? Politics. Or just indifference ? Or both ? And in return for all the photo ops obtained by our Legislators just what have they accomplished vis-a-vis NEON.

    1. Mark Chapman

      @PI Berman

      The city could not audit NEON because NEON was not a city agency. It was answerable to the state. What the city could do it did — then-Mayor Richard Moccia turned off the spiggot and said it would not be turned on again until NEON put credible financial controls in place and there was a transparent reporting process so the city could be sure its money was properly spent. Mayor Harry Rilling continued that policy. Several competent board members walked away when they were stonewalled in their attempts to get financial information from a succession of leaders. The makeup to the board meant those people did not have the votes to affect changes. The question is not, snd should not, be one of color, of blaming the minority community. The blame is on individuals who could have and should have used their positions to fix things and did not.

  17. EveT

    Quite often when competent, honest people don’t get involved in an organization, it’s because they see incompetence and dishonesty among those who are running it. They can see that they don’t have the votes to clean up the mess, and if they get involved it will only tarnish their reputations.

  18. Things that makes u go hmmmm

    It will be so interesting if there are more higher power that is really involved will be unfolded. From the back door meeting people were having comes to the light and the God sent that was brought to bring Neon out of this. And he was being paid from a angency that was also having financial problems. $124,00 if i am not mistaken. Something smells fishy

  19. The Norwalker

    I would say Organization’s Boards are responsible for the behavior of Nonprofits. There is tons of information on the best practices of Nonprofit boards.

    Included is that Boards should approve budgets and ensure that the organization follows the budget. It is their duty to oversee and ensure that variances in the budget are corrected.

  20. piberman

    To Mark Chapman:

    We’ve had this argument before. Norwalk has no shortage of minority individuals who have achieved substantial professional and financial success. Many live here. Others work here. Some are regionally prominent. Others have national reputations for excellence. What’s puzzling is why few such individuals volunteer their much needed skillsets to NEON such as serving on the zbosrd. If the individuals served by NEON are mostly minority why is imprudent to ask why the most successful minority members of our community do not offer their services and serve as role models ? And why do we not hear protest from the minority community writ large for obvious agency misdeeds such as excessive 6 figure salaries, hiring family members and friends, absence of periodic financial reports and so on ? And why is it imprudent to ask why elected officials representing minority residents haven’t demanded much better performance. Norwalk has a substantial and vigorous minority community. Why haven’t they taken NEON under their collective wing and made it an admired effort ? Why has NEON been a perpetual embarrassment and underperformer ?

    1. Mark Chapman

      @PI Berman

      I agree with much of what you say here, but when you make sweeping generalizations about Norwalk’s minority leaders, we part company. There are good and bad in all races. You recently suggested groups should not be allowed to participate in city government because they have not stepped up for NEON. Should we say white people — or white Democrats — should not be allowed to participate in government because you feel Malloy, Duff and so many other white Democrats — of which you, last time I checked, are one — have done a horrible job? Maybe white Republicans should be banned because John Rowland was corrupt, and because … well, you get the picture. Plenty of minority people have stepped up in government to lead, only to be slapped down and obstructed at every turn. Let’s keep the comments focused on the individuals and not their skin color or heritage.

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