LINCOLN — A Kansas-based private agency had to borrow money to pay foster parents last year while it spent $80,000 on Chicago Cubs tickets and took on the management of all Omaha-area child welfare cases, according to a whistleblower report.
St. Francis Ministries holds a $197 million, five-year contract from Nebraska to oversee the care of abused and neglected children in Douglas and Sarpy Counties. The award was announced in early June 2019 and the agency started taking over cases from an Omaha-based contractor in October 2019. The transition was completed by Jan. 1.
During that same period, according to the report, top management at the Salina, Kansas, nonprofit was struggling to pay weekly expenses, making questionable spending decisions and attempting to cover up a major data crash.
Kansas child welfare officials received the unsigned report on Nov. 26 last year. They responded in January by hiring an accounting firm to audit St. Francis. The audit report is not public yet. Last week, officials with the Kansas Department of Children and Families said they are pushing St. Francis for access to all the agency’s documents concerning its financial stability and its use of state dollars.
The St. Francis board launched an internal investigation two months ago after learning about the whistleblower’s report. The investigation ended last month with the departure of the agency’s top two officials — the Rev. Robert Smith, who had been president and CEO of the agency, and Tom Blythe, who had been chief operating officer.
Khalilah LeGrand, a spokeswoman for Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services, said state officials have not seen the whistleblower’s report, although they were informed about the existence of the internal investigation. She said St. Francis was awarded the Omaha-area contract because it received the highest score under the state’s procurement process.
“St. Francis continues to be committed to serving Nebraska’s children and families,” she said. “DHHS remains focused on helping people live better lives and continues to work collaboratively with their leadership.”
St. Francis spokeswoman Morgan Rothenberger declined to comment on the report Tuesday, saying it would be inappropriate before Kansas officials finish their investigation. Earlier, she had said the allegations did not include any alleged improprieties involving children and families.
In a statement, William Clark, who has been named interim president and CEO, commended the whistleblower.
“We appreciate the courage it took for the whistleblower to come forward and bring questionable actions to light,” he said. “Ultimately, this will make us a stronger and better organization, which is always our goal.”
Rothenberger said Clark has been working with St. Francis officials and board members “to make difficult decisions that will ensure a strong future for Saint Francis.”
Nebraska State Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha, the Health and Human Services Committee chairwoman, said she doesn’t know how or whether the financial issues raised in Kansas affect the Omaha-area contract. She said her biggest concern is the job St. Francis does in looking after children and families.
Kansas officials released the whistleblower report in response to a public records request from The World-Herald. They also released two more recent complaints of document falsification by St. Francis case workers in Kansas.
The initial whistleblower, who wanted to remain anonymous “as I fear for my job if I were to identify myself,” detailed several financial and information technology problems within St. Francis.
According to the report, cash shortages forced St. Francis on “multiple occasions” in 2019 to prioritize its bills, deciding which to pay and which to put off. The agency had a line of credit with a bank but did not meet all the requirements for that line of credit during the year. The report also said the agency had borrowed money from a private individual during the year to make weekly payments.
Meanwhile, the whistleblower said, St. Francis management bought $80,000 worth of Chicago Cubs tickets in 2019, including $65,000 worth of playoff tickets. The agency expected to get the $65,000 back because the Cubs did not make the playoffs.
The report did not say whether the ticket purchase was related to St. Francis’ bid for the Nebraska contract. Gov. Pete Ricketts’ family owns the Cubs. Rothenberger offered no comment on the question either.
Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage said the governor was not aware of the purchase of those tickets until it was reported in the press. He noted that the governor no longer sits on the Cubs’ board.
Other concerns in the whistleblower report included a $7 million information technology contract with Bill Whymark, who the report identified as a business partner to Smith, the former St. Francis president, and the agency paying election expenses for Smith’s wife to seek a national office with the Episcopal Church, which is affiliated with St. Francis.
The report said that Whymark was 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 Whymark. The crash wiped out all medical billing data and caused the agency to miss payments to foster parents and other vendors on Oct. 1, 2019.
The more recent complaints involved one employee who documented 165 visits with Kansas children in foster care that did not happen and another who failed to meet with foster care providers. In a statement last week, Laura Howard, the Kansas children and families department head, said St. Francis has fired both employees and put processes in place to prevent a recurrence.
In Nebraska, quarterly state reviews show that St. Francis has continued to struggle with overburdened case managers since taking on the Omaha contract. A review released Monday showed that from January through September, more than half of St. Francis workers have had caseloads above the limits set in state law. Heavy caseloads make it harder for workers to give children and families the attention needed.
The review also found that St. Francis had not done thorough background checks for newly hired employees. Of 74 employee files reviewed, 35 lacked proof of proper background checks. The state barred those employees from having unsupervised contact with children and families until the checks could be completed.