Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Center hits back against complaints regarding Pulse donations

Posted By on Wed, Dec 14, 2016 at 7:26 PM

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MARISSA MAHONEY
  • Photo by Marissa Mahoney
The GLBT Center of Central Florida is rebutting allegations in an Orlando Sentinel article regarding complaints that prompted a state investigation into how the organization handled donations made in the wake of the Pulse massacre.

The Center became a gathering site for the community after the mass shooting on June 12 that killed 49 people and injured many others at the gay nightclub. Located at 946 N. Mills Ave., the organization serves as a sanctuary for the LGBTQ community and offers clinical services such as HIV testing. The Sentinel article, which was published online Dec. 13, says the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services opened an investigation into The Center after an initial complaint was filed in September and a second complaint in November. In a statement, The Center and its attorney have denied the allegations, calling them "unfounded and erroneous claims, based upon speculation and rumor mongering," according to the Sentinel.

"We are proud of the work that The Center, our volunteers, staff, and Board of Directors perform in normal times, but we are exceptionally proud of the efforts of all those involved since the Pulse tragedy," the organization says in a statement. "We are 100 percent confident that the State’s investigation will close without cause."

The Sentinel reports Lee Kirkpatrick, a former board member of The Center, filed a complaint saying The Center's board of directors has stopped sharing with its members the board meeting schedule and financial reports. Joe Sivoli, an IT expert who helped install a donation of computers made to The Center after the tragedy, alleged in his complaint a "possible collusion" between The Center's top leaders to skim cash intended to go to Pulse victims and talked about big bags of Publix gift cards with "no controls as to who took or used them." Sivoli says he helped raise $8,000 for computers for The Center, and when he went to Best Buy with executive director Terry DeCarlo to buy the computers, The Center's credit card was declined.

In a long statement, which you can read in its entirety here, The Center publishes an item-by-item rebuke to both complaints.

In regards to Kirkpatrick's complaint, The Center says it doesn't post the board's meeting schedule to keep the meetings confidential and open among board members. The organization adds that it does publish its financial statements on its website.

The Center adds that Kirkpatrick and another member were upset when the organization sold property it owned that used to be occupied by the Forbidden City restaurant. The Center says it sold the property to reduce its mortgage and pay off old debts.

"Prior to the influx of Pulse donations, The Center’s financial position was the strongest it had been in our 38-year history," the statement says. "The Board of Directors believe that any reasonable person that reviews our financial statements from 2012 forward would come to the same conclusion that our financial practices are sound and our transparency with regard to financial matters rivals that of national non-profit organizations."
The Center says when the second complaint was filed by Sivoli, The Center was notified by the state on Nov. 2 and addressed the accusations, which led to the state closing the complaint on Nov. 22. The Center says after a Sentinel reporter contacted the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services regarding the complaints, the state investigator told The Center they were re-opening the investigation "in an abundance of caution."

Orlando Weekly reached out to the state department regarding the status of the investigation but did not get an immediate response.

In regards to Sivoli's complaint, The Center says Sivoli's employer, FIS, provided funding for the computers and equipment. When Sivoli and DeCarlo went to buy the computers, DeCarlo's card was declined because the purchase exceeded the daily purchase limit on that card. Sivoli bought the equipment on his personal credit card and was reimbursed by the organization two days later.

The Center says that afterward, Sivoli tried to redirect his employer's excess contribution from their organization to Two Spirit Health Services, which The Center refused to do because they did not have explicit consent to do so from FIS. The organization adds that it provided gift card logs to the state and the Sentinel to prove there was control over those donations. The daily newspaper did not include that in their reports, which may have led to "misleading and incomplete reporting on this subject," according to the statement. The Center says Sivoli has "zero evidence" to support his allegation that DeCarlo and board president Timothy Vargas were taking cash for themselves.

"We dismiss the allegation as nothing more than rumors intended to damage the credibility of The Center, its Executive Director, and its Board President," the statement says. "We consider Mr. Sivoli’s persistence in spreading rumor as slanderous, and we will take all necessary actions to defend The Center, its officers, and its Board of Directors."

Finally, The Center adds that it raised $715,130 for the OneOrlando Fund for Pulse victims' families and survivors without using any of those funds for administrative expenses. The Center says it has also raised money after the Pulse massacre for several initiatives, including $20,000 to Two Spirit for counseling, $35,000 to The Center for a counseling program and $29,500 to businesses around Pulse who incurred costs after the tragedy.

"While we remain in control of a substantial amount of general funding, we take our responsibility for center donations very seriously, and we will continue to be deliberate with how we utilize those funds to continue to heal our community and expand services to our neighbors and community members," the statement says.

In a phone interview Wednesday night, Vargas says the days after the attack were a blur as a small staff tried to organize the different types of incoming donations while hundreds of visitors came in and out of the building. During that time, The Center asked their bank to come to the location daily to help keep the donations and funds in order.

The Center is cooperating with the state's investigation, Vargas says, and he knows in the end they will be vindicated. Still, the situation has left him feeling "defeated."

"I’m one of hundreds of people from our community that came together on June 12 to provide an adequate community response," Vargas says. "We knew first responders were inundated and their resources were going to be stretched dealing with the crime scene. We knew our city resources didn't have the organization or infrastructure in place to deal with fallout for the families and victims. We felt these were our brothers and sisters, and this was something we had to do. We did it selflessly, out of the goodness in our hearts, and to have all that called into question is certainly hurtful."

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