As Home Heating Crisis Looms, Questions Continue to Surround New Haven CAA [Commentary]

August 14, 2008

Every year, the State of Connecticut relies on 13 Community Action Agencies (CAA) to disburse millions of dollars in state and federal home heating assistance funds to thousands of low-income families. This year, CAA’s will be called on to play an even greater role, as Governor Rell and the General Assembly prepares to expand most state-run home heating assistance programs to cope with the worst energy crisis Connecticut has faced in decades. Regrettably, the CAA of New Haven, which administers heating assistance programs in New Haven, East Haven, Hamden, North Haven and West Haven, does not appear to be up to the task.

Last fall, we called on the Department of Social Services to conduct a full forensic audit of the CAA of New Haven after we reviewed a series of whistleblower complaints and other information that revealed a lack of financial controls and a general failure to properly administer a federal fuel assistance program. It was determined that unqualified applicants were receiving assistance, potentially at the expense of qualified applicants, and that the agency had a practice of generating false social security numbers for applicants who refused to provide them. The CAA has since been under both state and federal investigations.

More recently, it has come to light that the CAA of New Haven, which also offers elderly nutrition programs, double-billed more than $1.5 million in the last three years to administer Meals on Wheels – a food program for seniors. It is believed that the CAA had actually been double-billing for more than a decade, but no one knows for sure the extent of this problem, or how the extra money was ultimately spent. Questions remain, in part because the CAA’s leadership has not fully cooperated with Freedom of Information Requests.

We sent a basic FOI request to the CAA on July 18th asking for employment contracts, meeting minutes, legal fees, loan documents, budgets and financial audits performed in FY06-08. We also requested copies of correspondence between the CAA, its agents, servants and the State of Connecticut regarding the Meals on Wheels Program.

The FOI request could have been handled in hours, but instead, the response we received from CAA of New Haven President Amos Smith was late and less than forthcoming. Mr. Smith ignored our request for more than two weeks and then finally responded on August 6th, turning over less than a quarter of the information requested and blaming his tardiness in dealing with the rest of the request on, among other things, “vacation schedules among staff.” We have since filed an appeal with the state Freedom of Information Commission.

Mr. Smith claims he has instituted tighter controls since taking over as CAA Director in 2006, but the Meals on Wheels billing debacle wasn’t discovered until December of 2007. Eight months later, Mr. Smith still has not told us the extent of the billing errors or how the millions of dollars in excess revenues have been spent. The only thing we know for sure is that the money is all gone. The CAA’s failure to comply with a simple FOI request is even more troubling, considering the cloud of suspicion CAA of New Haven has been under for more than two years.

As the state prepares to entrust the CAA this winter with even greater responsibility to administer state and federal fuel assistance programs, taxpayers and the public deserve answers and peace of mind.

Energy costs are escalating, our economy is worsening, and a cold winter is coming. Can we trust this organization to help care for our elderly and ensure low-income families receive the energy assistance they need this winter? Can we trust this organization with our tax dollars?

The burden of proof is on CAA and time is short. If the CAA does not fully comply with pending FOI requests and answer all remaining questions about its billing debacle, general operating procedures and accounting practices, then the State of Connecticut, through the Department of Social Services, must step in and take over the operation. The stakes are too high and we must ensure every qualified applicant receives the heating assistance they need this winter.