Editorials, Opinion

DSF Stop saga gets taken to next level

Last year, David Beard reported on the Dunbar School Foundation Stop program — a saga of accusations, denials and government review. We recently learned that, after roughly two years of being under review by the Department of Health and Human Resources (since divided into separate departments), DSF Stop is under investigation by the state Office of Inspector General.

The saga, condensed: 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).

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.

The other allegation is that DSF Stop CEO Romelia Hodges and former chief operating officer Tiffany Samuels staffed the program with friends and family. 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 claimed 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, said the minutes are incorrect.

In June of last year, DSF Stop closed up shop and turned over the keys to its headquarters in Fairmont. In the process, though, DSF Stop employees were accused of removing items from the building that had been paid for with grant money, and at our last update in mid-June 2023, we reported the items had been removed to off-site “lockers,” to which Hodges had the keys.

Follow-up questions seemed to be lost in the ether with the dissolution of the DHHR into three separate departments. It was the denial of a Freedom of Information Act request asking for DSF Stop financials that alerted us to the inspector general’s investigation, but no other information was provided.

We’ll continue to follow the DSF Stop saga because any expenditures paid for with taxpayer dollars should be accounted for and because taxpayers deserve to know how their money was spent.