TV-6 Investigates: United Neighbors oversight

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DAVENPORT, Iowa (KWQC) City of Davenport records reveal new details about the funding situation at United Neighbors. As TV-6 Investigates has been reporting, the state suspended funding over questions about a rental assistance program. That left at least 100 families without the ability to fully pay their rent, according to state records.

Former director Ida Johnson worked at United Neighbors from 1973 through September of last year. She filed a lawsuit against United Neighbors in early February, the fourth departed employee to do so. Her suit claims United Neighbors was fully compliant with all laws when she left.

But new records uncovered by TV-6 Investigates show United Neighbors, under Johnson's leadership, faced increasing scrutiny about its compliance with the rules.

United Neighbors receives federal funding through the State and the City, but through separate programs. That means both the State and the City must watch United Neighbors expenditures. Davenport police received a complaint about United Neighbors in the fall. One of its detectives is waiting for a forensic audit of United Neighbors to finish. But our investigation has found Davenport uncovered multiple issues at United Neighbors since 2013.

For decades, parents have turned to United Neighbors to give their children a safe place to play and learn during summer break. That program is paid for with federal money, provided through Davenport city hall. United Neighbors runs several programs with federal money including mortgage assistance and a rental assistance program provided through the State.

Behind the scenes, Davenport city staff monitor the results of the programs it funds. City records obtained by TV-6 Investigates show since 2013, city staff have raised repeated concerns about United Neighbors ability to handle federal dollars.

In 2013 city records show United Neighbors didn't verify financial information people provided to it. The City found United Neighbors didn't do its math correctly, and in some cases the City found people got money who shouldn't have.

In response, United Neighbors hired a local consultant to help it correct any mistakes. City records show United Neighbors refunded the money paid to ineligible people, and United Neighbors created checklists for its staff to follow to prevent mistakes from occurring again.

In 2014 city records show city staff classified United Neighbors as a high risk organization. The city cited staff turnover, poor performance, and a failure to meet goals from the year before. City staff watched United Neighbors more closely. Improvements followed the extra oversight, but city records show United Neighbors still was not fully using the checklists it created in 2013 to prevent mistakes. The city found United Neighbors again provided federal money to people who weren't qualified. United Neighbors corrected the mistakes and repaid the federal funds.

In 2015 city records show staff reclassified United Neighbors as low risk because the city now reviews every application. City staff did not find more major problems. But, during a routine review, United Neighbors auditors said the agency lacked financial records for many of its transactions.

TV-6 Investigates asked former director Ida Johnson for an interview about the city's past monitoring efforts. Through an attorney, she declined the request. State officials didn't know about the city's findings until we brought it up to them.

Iowa Finance Authority Chief Programs Officer Carolann Jensen said, "They had received a grant in 2013, and successfully administered that, not had any problems, we heard nothing but glowing remarks about United Neighbors."

Jensen oversees the funding provided to United Neighbors for its rental assistance program. She said the problems her staff found after responding to complaints at United Neighbors in October 2016 about the rental assistance program are unprecedented for her agency.

"This is the first occurrence for us to this kind of scale," said Jensen.

She would not provide any more details.

"We won't provide them any funds at all, until we have some clarification," said Jensen.

The State and Davenport Police detectives are waiting for United Neighbors to finish a forensic audit that's been ongoing since November. Once that's done the State plans to review all of United Neighbors files.

The State says its rental assistance contract with United Neighbors will remain suspended until this investigation is complete.