Friday, March 24, 2000

City freezes funds to tourism program

Documentation questions raised

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cincinnati officials have frozen funds for an African American Chamber of Commerce tourism program, saying there is not enough proof to justify money already spent.

        After distributing $215,000 of a $300,000 contract, city officials said they won't release more until the chamber provides detailed documents for expenditures and returns or explains what is being done with any money it hasn't spent.

        The chamber has also failed to raise $50,000 it promised the city for supporting the Tourism-Multicultural Impact Project, which was supposed to generate millions of dollars for the area by bringing “specialized groups throughout the country” to Cincinnati.

        “At this point we don't know if it is serious or not,” said Antoinette Selvey-Maddox, acting director of economic development. “All indications are that everything that was spent went for what was in the contract.”

        Even so, she said the department has been attempting to get confirming documents from the chamber for three months and the city hasn't made any payments since December.

        James Clingman, president of the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky African American Chamber of Commerce, did not return calls Thursday.

        Councilman Phil Heimlich, who asked for a report on the $300,000 three weeks ago, said it is another example of sloppy oversight by city staff.

        “We have been giving out $100,000 at a time without getting any verification,” he said. “It reflects a continuing problem in how we do business.”

        The $300,000 was approved as part of a $14.6 million add-on to the 1999 budget by City Council members, who opted to fund nearly 48 projects ranging from temporary housing for the homeless to equipment for a gym for overweight children.

        “This is a poor way to spend money,” Mr. Heimlich said. “I think city money should be spent on things like road repair, police and fire and potholes.”

        Mr. Heimlich asked for review of the tourism program on March 6. On that same day, bank records show $20,000 was deducted from the chamber's tourism project account.

        Another $47,660 was withdrawn on Tuesday, two days before the city released its report calling for the chamber to make an accounting of expenses. That withdrawal zeroed out the account.

        “I can't comment on that,” Ms. Selvey Maddox said, adding that staff members have been in contact with chamber representatives.

        She acknowledged that Mr. Heimlich's request caused her staff to ask more detailed questions about expenses, but said the decision to freeze funds had already been made.

        Although there was $67,000 in the chamber's account at the beginning of the month, Ms. Selvey Maddox said there was no way to seize it, because the city had already given the money away.

        Only Mr. Clingman and one other chamber representative had access to the account.

        Mr. Heimlich compared “the lack of oversight” on the chamber's program to recent problems in neighborhood services, which has distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to two development groups that have failed to deliver projects promised year after year. Those groups are currently being investigated by the FBI, the Hamilton County prosecutor, city and private auditors and the city's Office of Municipal Investigations.

        Like the neighborhood groups, the chamber was paid on a voucher system, meaning that in order to get money from the city it had to present a list of expenses.

        Copies of the vouchers contained in Thursday's report show brief summaries of expenses, none more than four lines long and one handwritten with amounts scratched out and redone:

        “Riverfront Classic $15,000.”

        “Technical assistance $40,000.”

        “Business development $55,000.”

        “Total, $95,000.”

        Ms. Selvey-Maddox said that, beginning this year, her department required contractors to provide supporting documents before payments are made.

        “We won't know if there is an issue or not until we get those documents,” she said. “At this point we can't tell.”


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