Dan Bauman and Mara H. Gottfried
The Saint Paul Pioneer Press
A complaint alleging a St. Paul nonprofit, Breaking Free, has misused public funding and not properly served victims led the Minnesota attorney general’s office to ask a dozen agencies to look into the organization.
Breaking Free works with women and girls who have been prostituted, and claims about the nonprofit surfaced in a letter that former employees and others sent to government agencies in April.
The concerns about Breaking Free come not only from people who have worked in the organization. The St. Paul Police Department said it has stopped referring victims to Breaking Free and no longer allows the organization to hold its “John School,” for first-time prostitution offenders, on police department property.
Recently, with inquiries into Breaking Free underway, founder Vednita Carter has been stressing to agencies they work with that “recent financial audits … have found no significant issues of concern.” This week, for the first time, Carter issued a public response.
Carter wrote on the organization’s website that she realizes “there are many rumors floating around, due in part to an anonymous letter full of unfounded allegations that were circulated to our funders, donors, and most cherished partners.” She said Breaking Free has hired a consulting agency to investigate and publicly report the results.
CARTER BECOMES GROUP’S PRESIDENT
Carter, who has won international recognition for her nearly 20 years as executive director of Breaking Free, has stepped into a new role as the organization’s president, she announced. Another staffer will serve as interim executive director and handle day-to-day operations, while Carter said she will act “as the face of Breaking Free.”
The move isn’t connected to the allegations about Breaking Free, Carter said. The board of directors had been discussing the change since at least 2013, meeting minutes show.
Breaking Free receives funding from several places — $2.4 million from government agencies and $2.1 million from foundations, companies and individuals between fiscal years 2009 and 2013, according to annual tax documents.
How Breaking Free has spent this money was a central part of the letter from former employees, volunteers, a donor and a board member. After the St. Paul police department received a copy of the complaint, Assistant Chief William Martinez sent it to the Minnesota attorney general’s office in June.
POLICE: GROUP UNCOOPERATIVE
Even before the letter arrived, the St. Paul Police Department had been evaluating its relationship with Breaking Free, Martinez said.
While police had “held in high regard its longstanding relationship with Breaking Free,” there were concerns, Cmdr. Robert Thomasser, who heads the St. Paul police human trafficking unit, wrote in a January memo to Martinez. Breaking Free was uncooperative with department investigations, not providing locations of victims who police took to the organization, which meant they couldn’t do follow-up interviews, Thomasser cited as an example in another message.
After meeting with the police chief and county attorney in April, Carter wrote to them she’d been “unaware that law enforcement had been having trouble gaining contact with women after they had referred them to Breaking Free” and said she’d stressed to staff “that it is both a duty of our jobs and a desire of Breaking Free to assist.”
BREAKING FREE DENIES MISMANAGEMENT CLAIMS
The attorney general’s office summarized the former employee’s allegations in a letter to a dozen government agencies:
— “Breaking Free has failed to properly deliver the program services for which it receives funding.”
— Breaking Free staff who raised concerns “were harassed and threatened by members of Breaking Free’s leadership.”
— “Breaking Free has misused funds for the personal benefit of its executive director and her family.”
The letter from people formerly associated with Breaking Free alleged that family members of Carter had lived or are living in Breaking Free housing.
Carter said in an interview Tuesday that relatives of hers had not lived in the organization’s housing, which they describe as the only permanent supportive housing program for sex-trafficking victims in the country.
Responding to the claims, Carter said Breaking Free has “spent our money on what we were supposed to spend it on. We’ve always done that and our audits show it.”
Carter also said the allegations about a pattern of retaliation were not true and, as for the victims they work with, “the bulk … have been very pleased.”
SEVERAL AGENCIES NOTIFIED
Some agencies who received the former employee’s allegations are reviewing their next steps. Benjamin Velzen, manager of the attorney general’s charities division, told the federal, state, city and county agencies that he was referring the information “for any review and action you deem appropriate under the circumstances.”
Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles, among those who received Velzen’s letter, said his office conducts a preliminary assessment for any allegations his office receives. They’ll determine if they have jurisdiction, if it’s something they should investigate immediately, or if the agency should address the issues in a possible upcoming audit, Nobles said.
Velzen also wrote back to Martinez at the police department, saying, “some of the allegations in the anonymous letter, if substantiated, may run afoul of the criminal laws” and he recommended police “work with both the St. Paul City Attorney’s Office and the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office and … undertake any investigation … you deem appropriate.” Police said Tuesday they are deciding how to proceed.
Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson wrote to Velzen this month that her agency’s internal audits office found no problems after a review of client files for people who’d been housed at Jerry’s Place, a St. Paul shelter for teens who’d been sexually trafficked. A “financial reconciliation of all DHS funds spent by Breaking Free” is ongoing, Jesson wrote.
DHS had provided a grant to Breaking Free for Jerry’s Place, which Breaking Free opened in October and announced in February that it would be closing in March. Carter said Breaking Free had received less than half of their original funding request for Jerry’s Place, and the amount they received didn’t allow them to maintain the staff needed. But DHS said this year that Breaking Free knew the funding amount a year before it opened.
Velzen also directed his letter to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. A regional planning body that coordinates housing and services for the homeless had previously notified the HUD field office after getting the April complaint letter. Breaking Free applied last year for more than $450,000 in HUD funding and received approval for it.
The HUD Office of Inspector General doesn’t confirm or deny the existence of investigations, a spokeswoman said. A HUD spokeswoman in Chicago previously said she couldn’t confirm whether Breaking Free is under investigation.
BREAKING FREE WILL FOCUS ON ADULT VICTIMS
Carter said in the announcement this week that Breaking Free isn’t closing its doors.
“As of June 2015, we housed 60 women and their children, hosted weekly support groups for over 150 women, and provided general services to a total of 511 women and girls (71 percent of whom were new clients at Breaking Free),” Carter wrote. “Our waiting list for housing gets longer every week and the number of women seeking support at Breaking Free continues to grow — evidence that services for women who have been victims and survivors of prostitution and sex-trafficking are desperately needed, perhaps now more than ever before.”
Carter also said that Breaking Free will provide help in the future to adult women only, and will refer girls under 18 to other agencies. The number of girls they’ve served in the last five years has been less than 10 percent of their total population, Carter said.