A federal agency has launched a review into allegations that the city of Richmond submitted erroneous reports as part of a nearly $400,000 federal stimulus grant aimed at encouraging broadband use among minorities and low-income residents.
In an interview, Katy Curl, the city’s Library and Cultural Services director, acknowledged that her department could not document $57,000 worth of in-kind services, such as electricity and phone bills, it claimed to have provided over the past two fiscal years as part of the program.
“We used the numbers in good faith that they were correct,” Curl said. “As we looked back, it wasn’t a number that could be verified.”
Prompted by a whistle-blower complaint from a finance manager in the city’s Library and Cultural Services Department, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration began reviewing the city’s handling of the grant this month. The grant is part of a $4.7 billion program to improve the nation’s broadband system. The whistle-blower declined to be named for fear of jeopardizing her job prospects.
It does not appear that any federal funds have gone missing.
“We are looking in to it,” agency spokeswoman Heather Phillips said in an email. She said the agency is “vigorously overseeing” all projects in the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, which is part of the Obama administration’s federal stimulus program.
Asked about the federal review, Curl said the city would submit new reports to the federal government this week that replace the erroneous reports. The new reports will account for a different set of in-kind services worth about $54,000 over the past two fiscal years, Curl said. The new reports could include in-kind services such as computer maintenance and office space.
The telecommunications administration declined to comment on whether federal officials would allow the city to replace the flawed set of in-kind services.
Sherry Drobner, the literacy program manager who submitted the erroneous reports, did not return a call requesting comment.
"On the face of it, the numbers looked fine," Curl said. "What I didn't know (until later) is that they could not be verified."
Curl declined to discuss whether Drobner had been disciplined, citing confidentiality rules surrounding personnel matters.
The finance manager alerted the city manager’s office in August about the alleged financial irregularities, documents show. The finance manager says she then received an email from the Library and Cultural Services director that threatened her with disciplinary action, which led her to report the financial irregularities to federal officials.
She has also filed a harassment claim with the city attorney’s office against the city’s human resources director/assistant city manager and the Library and Cultural Services Department director, documents show. She filed a separate complaint with the Contra Costa County Grand Jury.
Richmond City Manager Bill Lindsay declined to comment about the whistle-blower complaint but defended the city’s ability to administer federal funds.
“My major concern is if there’s a problem with the way we’ve handled something,” Lindsay said. “I’m confident in our ability to handle federal funds. If there are issues where we didn’t handle them appropriately, I would like to take corrective action.”
This fiscal year, the city will receive at least $11 million in federal stimulus funding, which will underwrite incentives for homeowners to install solar panels and energy-efficient lightbulbs, as well as a high-speed Internet system for the Port of Richmond, among other project.
Richmond received its digital literacy grant through a project administered by Portland State University and funded with $3.3 million in federal stimulus funds. The goal is to increase broadband use among more than 23,000 adults in Richmond and other underserved populations in places such as Texas, Minnesota, New York and New Orleans.
The grant, which began in September 2010, runs through mid-2013. Richmond officials have pledged to provide more than $500,000 worth of in-kind services as part of the federal grant. Part of the in-kind services were to be provided by community organizations, including the Richmond Adult School, which are recruiting and training residents to use the Internet.