NEW BRIGHTON (KDKA) — It’s meant to give a head start to disadvantaged preschoolers who might otherwise be left behind, but when Beaver County’s program ran deeply into the red and could no longer fulfill its obligation to its 600 kids, it handed the reins back to the federal government.
“The children are entitled to be served in the best possible way, so in order for that to occur we voluntarily relinquished the program,” Brian Yaworsky, the board chairman, said.
The feds have taken over but are also demanding repayment of some $160,000 in misspent funds — money the organization used from future allocations to cover past debts — something the board blames on its former financial officer or CFO.
“The information presented by the previous CFO caused the board to make certain decisions that affected the programmatic activities,” Yaworsky said.
But the CFO — who declined to be interviewed on camera — resigned last spring, but told me she’s being scapegoated for a $5 million dollar a year organization run amok.
She said the board took no heed of rising salary, health care and energy costs and ran up additional debt in costly real estate and building renovation deals entered into exclusively with the board’s own solicitor Al Torrence, who acknowledges he benefited from his relationship with the board.
“Yes the landlord benefits,” Torrence told KDKA-TV. “That doesn’t mean it’s improper.”
As solicitor Torrence wore two hats — legal advisor and real estate developer at the ready.
Three years ago, the board renovated a Torrence-owned building in Brighton Township and entered into a 10-year guaranteed lease with him worth $36,000 a year, then agreed to renovate a building Torrence owns in New Brighton and entered into another 10-year lease worth $39,000 a year.
Andy Sheehan: “Don’t you personally enrich yourself by having the organization that you represent lease two buildings with you with 10-year guaranteed leases?”
Torrence: “I am a landlord like all the other landlords of Head Start and certainly to the extent that you are a landlord and operating a commercial property for a tenant, yes you can make some money on that.”
Then just last year, the federal Department of Education donated a building in Ambridge to the group and the board appointed Torrence to administer $217,000 to renovate the building at the same time it awarded him a no-bid $42,000 a year contract to manage the building.
Meanwhile, renovations at the New Brighton building dragged on. The board initially allocated $75,000 to renovate the Torrence-owned building, but documents obtained by the KD Investigators indicate that they eventually came in $100,000 over budget — something Torrence denies.
Andy Sheehan: “You got $75,000 to renovate the New Brighton building and this all came up $100,000 over budget.”
Torrence: “That is not correct at all – no.”
Andy Sheehan: “Here’s …”
Torrence: “I know what it says. You don’t have to show it to me.”
The federal investigation into the board finances continues, but the board chairman says the real estate deals with Torrence did not contribute to the financial problems and defended the board’s dealings with its solicitor.
Andy Sheehan: “Doesn’t it seem a little too cozy that the board solicitor is getting these real estate contracts and that maybe you should have gone out for public bid or sought other people?”
Yaworsky: “In reference to facilities that these children are housed in I think that the board did well for the children.”
And that, says Torrence, is the bottom line.
“I could probably look at the places where those kids are being educated and say that those are the best Head Start classrooms that they can be,” he said.