AMBRIDGE (KDKA) — When the program began running in the red, the senior accountant of Beaver County Head Start says she became a federal whistleblower.
“I didn’t want to be, but I didn’t have any choice,” Cheryl McFarland said.
McFarland blamed the program’s troubles on a series no-bid lease and building renovation contracts between the board and its solicitor, Al Torrence.
“We just did whatever he said it cost – we paid him,” McFarland said.
Three years ago, the board renovated a Torrence-owned building in Brighton Township and entered into 10-year guaranteed lease with him worth $36,000 year.
Then agreed to renovate a building Torrence owns in New Brighton and entered into another 10-year lease worth $39,000 a year.
KDKA Investigator Andy Sheehan questioned Torrence in October.
Andy Sheehan: “Don’t you personally enrich yourself by having the organization that you represent lease two buildings from 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.”
Torrence did not return calls on Thursday, but in 2010 the board appointed him to administer $217,000 to renovate a building in Ambridge. At the same time, it gave him another no-bid contract to manage the building.
Now the federal Department of Health and Human Services wants that money back.
The feds say the contract was awarded to Torrance in a “secretive and non-competitive manner” and they are demanding the repayment of $19,000 for violation of the government’s procurement regulations.
“It’s a start,” McFarland said. “I think he owes a lot more.”
McFarland says she’s been recently interviewed by the state attorney general’s office, which tells her it is conducting its own investigation.
Meanwhile, Torrence and the board will have until next week to appeal the fine.
While Torrence would not return Andy Sheehan’s phone calls, in a published report he blames the fine on the complaints of disgruntled employees. He told the Beaver County Times quote: “It’s much ado about nothing.”