LINCOLN — Buying thousands of dollars’ worth of Chicago Cubs tickets was a “unique fundraising opportunity” for the Kansas-based nonprofit that oversees child welfare cases in the Omaha area, according to its former president and CEO.
The Rev. Bobby Smith, who led St. Francis Ministries until late October, took issue with reports about the purchase in a statement to the World-Herald Tuesday.
“While I am disheartened by inaccurate and uninformed reporting, I remain confident that my team and I were sincere in our efforts to transform St. Francis into a nationally and internationally respected organization resembling its earliest missional context; one focused on the needs of vulnerable children and families regardless of geography,” he said.
Smith sent the statement in response to reports of financial mismanagement on his watch at St. Francis. The embattled agency holds a $197 million, five-year contract to oversee the care of abused and neglected children in Douglas and Sarpy Counties.
The reports Smith cited include one submitted to Kansas child welfare officials by a whistleblower, who said the agency had to borrow to pay foster parents while spending money on such things as $80,000 worth of Cubs tickets. The ticket purchase occurred at the same time that St. Francis was taking on the Nebraska contract last year.
In his statement, Smith said a benefactor offered St. Francis a “revenue opportunity.” If St. Francis advanced $65,000 for postseason tickets, he said, the agency could sell the tickets on the secondary ticket market for more than face value. Smith said the benefactor returned the $65,000 when the Cubs did not make the playoffs.
The other $15,000 worth of tickets, he said, were offered to community leaders to develop “strategic relations” after St. Francis opened a Chicago office in 2018. Although Gov. Pete Ricketts’ family owns the Chicago Cubs, the governor’s spokesman has said he did not know about the ticket purchase before it emerged in media reports.
Smith also disputed that he was ever a “personal, business partner” with Bill Whymark, the president of WMK Research.
The whistleblower report said a now-removed webpage identified Whymark and Smith as co-owners of an IT company. The report said that Whymark had been hired to write a new suite of software for the agency but that no software had been delivered in a year. The agency also suffered a major systems crash after outsourcing its IT department to him.
An internal investigation launched by the St. Francis board in October reported a “potential conflict of interest” between the two men. It also said that Whymark billed for an “improbable amount of time” and that Smith spent a few minutes or less to review thousands of dollars of invoices from him.
The internal investigation also said Smith charged more than $469,000 on a pair of agency credit cards, including on pricey hotels, meals at five-star restaurants, iTunes purchases, airline upgrades, charitable gifts and more than $3,000 at a Chicago men’s clothing store touted as “specializing in luxury European designer apparel.”
In his statement, Smith said that “to transform an organization requires tireless effort and commitment. I accepted the demand of being on the road for days and weeks every month — travel that incurred thousands of dollars spent on airlines, hotels, meals and donor development activities.”
An interim president was named when the investigation began. It ended last month with the official departure of the agency’s top two officials — Smith and Tom Blythe, who had been chief operating officer.
The agency is losing money on its Nebraska contract, on which it dramatically underbid the previous provider. An internal investigation said Smith was warned that the contract would lose money, now estimated at $27 million for the current fiscal year and $7.4 million the previous budget year. Ricketts said Monday that the state is in negotiations with St. Francis over financial and other issues, as some state lawmakers call for a special legislative investigation.