Originally meant to be told in three parts, the DSF Stop saga ended up being a seven-installment series examining how the outreach organization may or may not have misspent federal COVID grants in its quest to get north-central West Virginia’s Black population vaccinated against COVID-19.
In short: The Dunbar School Foundation created the STOP (Stop the Outbreak of the Pandemic) program to combat the spread of COVID among Black communities in Fairmont, Morgantown, Clarksburg and surrounding areas by facilitating testing and vaccinations. The president of Dunbar School Foundation — who is not involved in the day-to-day activities of the program — Houston Richardson has accused DSF STOP (also called DSF Stop) of misusing federal grant dollars for unnecessary expenses and of nepotism (hiring friends and family members and paying them with grant money).
The Department of Health and Human Resources, which administers the federal grants, is currently reviewing DSF Stop’s financials and records. At this time, the DHHR has not said there is any criminal wrongdoing, though its statements have hinted that some expenses may have been improperly charged to the grant.
Among the most questionable expenses are luxury SUV rentals that totaled almost $50,000 a year, when leasing the vehicles would have been significantly less expensive; fuel write-offs for out-of-state trips to North Carolina, Maryland, Ohio and Pennsylvania, totaling $297.16; over $4,000 in ATM withdrawals that can’t be properly accounted for; and payments to a juice truck in Ohio for marketing and public relations services.
Some of these things can be explained and perhaps would have been if there had been better record-keeping, such as the fuel purchases and ATM withdrawals. If we’re giving DSF Stop the benefit of the doubt, we suppose its CEO and COO at the time didn’t realize it would be much cheaper to lease the SUVs than to rent them. Even the payments to the Ohio juice truck could technically be OK if the juice truck’s owner was providing marketing and PR services, but that probably should have been billed to the individual rather than the juice business.
Richardson also alleges that DSF Stop CEO Romelia Hodges and former chief operating officer Tiffany Samuels staffed the program with friends and family. That charge is harder to deny.
DSF Stop has a contract with Hodges’ husband, Patrick Hodges, for financial services. Samuels’ daughter, Justice Samuels, runs Eye Candy Beauty Supply in Fairmont and is on the DSF Stop payroll as an employee. Her son, Jenesis Samuels, was on the payroll as an employee but was subsequently paid as a contractor for services through his company, Jenesis Janitorial Services.
Hodges pointed out that, in the height of the pandemic, it was difficult to find people who wanted to work giving COVID vaccines and tests to potentially infectious people. DSF Stop put out all the proper hiring notices but received no responses. Hodges’ husband jumped into the fray to help her, and Justice Samuels’ salon became a key location for outreach efforts.
Richardson claims much of what Hodges and Samuels did was without DSF’s approval — including hiring family members. The DSF board’s meeting minutes tell a different story. At one meeting, the board voted to approve hiring “Justice Samuels, Jenesis Samuels and Patrick Hodges into their respective positions and accept[ed] the Conflict of Interest.” At another, “Romelia and Tiffany requested the board to approve Executive Privileges within the grant. This will allow them the authority to make decisions on employees, compensation, bonuses, and other items that are allowable within the confines of the grant,” and the board voted to approve their request.
Richardson, for his part, says the minutes are incorrect.
In the latest development, Richardson claims DSF Stop is behind on rent (which DSF does not deny) and if the program doesn’t pay up, it will be evicted from the Dunbar School cafeteria in which it had set up shop. Hodges responded that the DHHR ordered DSF Stop to stop paying rent to DSF, because they are considered the same organization and DSF can’t pay rent to itself.
We’re not in a place to say who, or what, may be wrong or right — especially since the DHHR has not yet finished its review. We do, however, support a full assessment of DSF Stop’s expenses, not because we think it has committed any wrongdoing, but because any expenditures paid for with taxpayer dollars should be accounted for.