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GLEANERS FOOD BANK Good works, bad accounting



Published: Sun, September 15, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



By ROGER G. SMITH

CITY HALL REPORTER

YOUNGSTOWN -- Joseph Lordi pokes his head into the back of a refrigerated truck to retrieve another crate of milk.

"I need more chocolate," he calls out.

Dozens of people line up to take half-gallon or gallon jugs of milk. They are tall and short, young and old, black and white, of all ages. They carry boxes and duffel bags full of food.

Many of them offer a polite "thank you" or a "thanks Joe" to the director of Gleaners Food Bank on Pyatt Street.

On this Tuesday, it's milk, bread and snacks from the weekly giveaway. "Whatever companies want to give," Lordi said, reaching back for another gallon.

Lordi knows his clients, and they know him. The food bank is his baby. He and volunteers have been collecting unwanted food and distributing it to those in need for 15 years. The food bank serves about 450 people a week these days, a 30-percent to 40-percent increase from two years ago, he said.

Those who know Lordi praise him for his dedication, call him a good man, even a saint. There are few doubts about his good works.

The city Community Development Agency, or CDA, doesn't question Lordi's good works, either.

CDA's problem with agency

But CDA -- which manages the city's federal money -- said it can't ignore the food bank's almost complete lack of accounting or oversight of the money provided to Gleaners the past couple of years. The city faces repaying the federal government $36,000 given to the food bank for fiscal years 1999-2000 and 2000-01 that can't be accounted for.

CDA records write a decidedly less-than-saintly profile of Gleaners when it comes to accountability.

CDA officials characterized Gleaners at various times in recent years as:

UA one-man organization with highly inadequate accounting and record keeping.

UAn agency with a history of persistent and gross noncompliance and inadequate business oversight.

UAn agency that established a disturbing pattern of noncompliance and inadequate oversight that has put the city in a precarious financial position.

Other CDA assessments include how the city has tried to work with the Gleaners staff to no avail and has been ignored and disregarded by a nonfunctioning, virtually nonexistent board of directors.

The main issue is the $36,000.

Gleaners' records are virtually nonexistent, according to a CDA-commissioned review done by Cohen & amp; Co., an accounting firm.

Money mixed

Gleaners' bank statements show that the agency mixed the city's federal grants and other money into one account. The practice makes it almost impossible to trace how the CDA money was spent.

Checks written from that account since 1999 show that Lordi used the fund for what CDA said look like personal expenses.

CDA documents show dozens of checks with notations such as:

U"Joe Lordi mortgage payment" for $800.

U"Dentist Joe/Linda Lordi" for $202.40.

U"Chrissy Lordi Insurance" for $143.31.

U"Linda Lordi clothes" for $120.84.

Lordi told The Vindicator earlier this month that he mixed the city's federal money with other funds -- including his own money. Then, he wrote checks from that account to pay personal and food bank expenses.

However, Lordi denied spending taxpayer money on anything other than food bank items as intended, such as freezers.

Those funds were never used for his personal expenses, he said, although no Gleaners documents have surfaced to back up that claim.

Lordi wouldn't talk about the accounting problems last week. He declined to review city records with The Vindicator.

Lordi said he doesn't know anything about the $36,000 at issue and said he will deal directly with city, not the press.

However, Gleaners has largely ignored the CDA regarding the accounting problems for most of the past three years, records show.

Director's memo

A March memo from Jay Williams, CDA director, to then-law director Robert Bush Jr., outlines the more serious problems.

The memo said that:

ULordi made "substantial and multiple misrepresentations and false assertions" to get city money.

For example, Lordi noted on an application for 1998-99 CDA money that Gleaners' sole source of income would be city funding, records show.

Gleaners, however, collected $53,000 in private donations during 1998 and $20,000 in 1999, according to IRS records filed with the Ohio Attorney General's Office. The money came from foundations, individuals and churches.

Gleaners also lists private donations of $35,000 in 2000 and $46,000 in 2001, according to the tax filings.

ULordi acknowledged that Gleaners has operated for years without a board of directors.

CDA told Lordi in October 1999 and January 2000 that he and his wife could not be on the board, documents show. Federal regulations prohibit board members from benefiting from federal funds paid to agencies. Lordi is paid about $30,000 per year and his wife is paid about $6,000, Williams said.

Despite the city warnings about conflicts of interest, there is no documentation the Lordis ever left the board.

Lordi told the city in November 1999 that he doesn't want to leave the board because he fears losing control of the food bank or seeing it merge, records show.

Tried to reach board

CDA tried reaching board members in late January 2002 to set up a meeting after the November 2001 review by Cohen & amp; Co. showed that Gleaners kept virtually no records. The Lordis were among the 12 names on the list of board members that CDA had.

Other listed board members didn't respond. Certified letters and phone calls were ignored, city documents show.

Finally, the city called Atty. Mark Colucci, referred to in the past as the board president, in late February 2001 in a last desperate attempt. Colucci and a couple other board members finally met with CDA. No progress, however, has been made since, Williams said.

Five people listed as board members have unlisted phone numbers and couldn't be reached to comment last week by The Vindicator.

Colucci couldn't be reached last week to discuss the situation. He did, however, leave a voice mail message with the newspaper. Colucci compared the possibility of prosecuting Lordi with putting Mother Teresa on trial for "Mickey Mouse accounting errors that he didn't quite understand."

Jim and Ann Gross of Boardman are among those listed as board members. Jim Gross said he can't remember the last time the board had a meeting. Gross said he hasn't been involved with overseeing Gleaners for a long time.

Lordi is a good man who does good work, he said. Gross added that he doesn't think Lordi cheated anybody. Lordi is guilty of nothing more than bad record keeping, Gross said. He said he is sure the problems will be fixed.

Gross said he would be willing to work on the board if it becomes active again.

Larry Propri of Youngstown was surprised to hear his name was listed as a director. He hasn't been active with Gleaners since 1997.

Propri described Lordi as a fine young man and said he was sorry to hear about the problems.

Last meeting

The last indication in CDA records of a Gleaners board meeting was in October 2000 to approve buying two storage trailers.

ULordi said he was unaware of requirements to properly administer federal funds and unaware of requirements to manage the business issues of the food bank. Lordi told The Vindicator earlier this month that he didn't know about all the federal regulations. Gleaners is small and has operated simply for 15 years, including its accounting, he said.

But in 1998, Lordi signed a CDA document that said audits and detailed financial records are required for agencies that receive more than $25,000.

In a March letter to CDA, Lordi acknowledged shortcomings.

He said Gleaners was overwhelmed with providing for community needs and neglected business operations. Lordi said he now knows that was a mistake. Lordi said he would do all he could to rectify the problems.

rgsmith@vindy.com




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