(Editor’s note: This headline has been updated to correct the amount awarded.)
It has been nearly a year since federal auditors revealed a pattern of improper spending at the Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, jeopardizing critical aid for the state’s abused women and children.
But those findings have not hindered the flow of public funds to the nonprofit, which supports domestic and sexual abuse victims and victim advocates with training, policy updates and financial aid.
Oklahoma reported a record number of domestic abuse incidents last year. Its rate of domestic violence against women is the nation’s highest, according to National Coalition Against Domestic Violence data.
Under the leadership of Candida Manion, the state coalition mismanaged more than $886,000 intended to support Oklahoma abuse victims, a June 2021 audit report showed. Public funds were spent on employee and board member vacations. Some money went unaccounted for, lacking invoices or signatures required under grant rules.
Despite an ongoing investigation into the mishandled money, federal agencies have awarded the nonprofit nearly $1.5 million since the audit’s release.
Two grants totaling more than $500,000 were awarded by the Office on Violence Against Women, which provided the funds scrutinized in the audit. That office has yet to determine what, if any, ramifications the nonprofit will face for its indiscretions.
The Office on Violence Against Women could suspend or ban the Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault from receiving new grants. Though that seems unlikely given the nonprofit’s recent success.
The American Rescue Plan and Family Violence Prevention and Services provided nearly $1 million.
Jeri Holmes, an attorney hired to assist the coalition with the audit, said the approval of those grants is a sign of confidence from federal agencies that any future penalties will not be detrimental to the nonprofit.
“One of the reasons why we feel comfortable moving forward is that we’ve gotten those additional grants,” Holmes said. “They’re moving forward so we’re moving forward.”
The Office on Violence Against Women could still require the nonprofit to repay some or all of the misused funds. Or it could forgive the full amount.
The U.S. Department of Justice could pursue criminal charges as it did in a recent case involving a similar nonprofit organization in Montana.
No charges or penalties have been handed down.
Early last year after firing Manion, who oversaw the coalition’s budget as executive director, board members hired Holmes along with an interim director and chief financial officer to work with federal authorities.
Chief Financial Officer Sharon Sullivan provided thousands of invoices, receipts, training materials and other documents found in unorganized boxes and electronic files to the Office on Violence Against Women.
Sullivan said during a May 12 board meeting that all but $41,000 of the questioned money is now accounted for.
“The coalition already had a lot of the information,” Sullivan said. “We just went through the office and filed everything so that we could find it.”
The Office on Violence Against Women refused to comment citing the ongoing investigation, according to an email from spokeswoman Aryele Bradford. Nonprofit staff and board members said they’re expecting the process to drag on for at least another year.
Meanwhile, the coalition is charging ahead.
Board members are preparing to launch a search for the organization’s next executive director.
The board promoted ReJeania Tolliver to associate director. Tolliver is the only employee to work under Manion that remains at the nonprofit. Two new staff members were recently hired, including a bookkeeper who is responsible for tracking expenses for the new grants.
At least five of the 28 shelters and crisis centers that the coalition supports let their annual membership lapse since the audit report was published.
Training for victim advocates increased this year following the influx of grant money, Tolliver told board members at the recent meeting. The coalition hosted a retreat for advocates in Tulsa with sessions on self-care for those working with abuse victims. The coalition is providing financial support to Seminole County Family Resource Center after a tornado damaged the facility early this month displacing shelter residents and staff.
New financial policies aimed at increasing oversight have been added to the organization’s bylaws. The board added a finance committee and a designated treasurer that reviews all of the coalition’s spending and ensures proper documentation is kept.
Board members spent the majority of the meeting debating the potential risks and benefits of opening a credit card for employee use. Currently, staff is expected to bear the cost of hotel rooms, office supplies and other costs until the expenses are reviewed by the board and approved for reimbursement. Treasurer Mindy Stevenson fought the suggestion.
Staff was charged with researching what limits and restrictions can be put on a credit card before bringing it to a vote at a later meeting.
“The problem that we’ve had in the past is that nobody’s verifying that information,” Stevenson said. “I don’t want any of that repeated.”
Whitney Bryen is an investigative reporter at Oklahoma Watch covering vulnerable populations. Her recent investigations focus on mental health and substance abuse, domestic violence, nonprofits and nursing homes. Contact her at (405) 201-6057 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @SoonerReporter.