Ohio Officials Reveal Questionable Spending For ‘Faith-Based’ Scheme

Officials in Ohio are looking into allegations that a "faith-based" organization in Virginia improperly spent money intended for the poor on jumbo-screen televisions, a study with limited value and a $125-per-month parking spot for a contractor.

The Dayton Daily News reported last month that the Virginia group, We Care America, is under audit. The organization in 2005 was given a $2.1 million contract to oversee the disbursement of $22 million in federal funds for projects to strengthen Ohio families, mentor troubled youth and work with prison inmates.

In January, newly elected Gov. Ted Strickland announced that various faith-based grants would be reviewed. Some staff members in the Ohio faith-based office were dismissed, and employees began reviewing documents. The Daily News reported that under the previous administration of Gov. Bob Taft, "the Governor’s Office on Faith-based and Community Initiatives paid one-page monthly invoices from We Care America with apparently few questions."

Auditors have found several questionable expenses. Among them is a decision to buy two 50-inch televisions. The sets cost $15,229 to buy and install and are still not functional. One of the TVs isn’t even in Ohio and was set up in We Care America’s offices in Lansdowne, Va.

Questions have also been raised about possible favoritism in awarding the grant to We Care America. Several organizations responded to the request for proposals, including groups with solid track records in providing community services.

But, the Daily News reported, three bidders, among them a team from Indiana University, were rejected because they supposedly lacked experience with prisoners. Another organization, the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies, was told it lacked experience in developing Web sites. Yet when We Care America got the contract, it was permitted to contract out Web site development.

"It almost seems like they knocked out the folks who would’ve been stronger competitors," said John Corlett, senior fellow at the Center for Community Solutions in Cleveland, told the newspaper.

Three groups were left. The contract ended up going to We Care America, even though it had submitted the highest bid among the three.

Ohio officials were especially concerned over We Care America’s practice of adding a 15 percent "overhead" charge to its invoices.

"Basically, yes, we’ve opened an investigation and we’ll be reviewing their contracts," Ohio Inspector General Tom Charles said.

We Care America is closely connected to the Religious Right and the Bush administration. Its chief executive, Dave Donaldson, is active with The Presidential Prayer Team, and its Ohio project director, Kelly Cowles, worked in the Bush administration’s faith-based programs.

In addition, the group shares an address with Charles W. Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries.