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Buffalo Urban League defends its reputation before Erie County Legislature

The Buffalo Urban League on Thursday staunchly defended its work and reputation before the Erie County Legislature, even as some legislators called for more accountability and oversight over the $4 million human services agency during a hearing that lasted more than two hours.

In response to a 12-page report from the Erie County Comptroller’s Office that found the agency overcharged the county and did not comply with training and reporting requirements, Urban League CEO Brenda McDuffie accused Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw of magnifying “a onetime mistake” into a wrongful, public accusation of fraud and mismanagement.

“Like any responsible organization that serves the community, the Buffalo Urban League always welcomes constructive criticism,” McDuffie said. “We can all get better and be more effective at what we do, and that goes for me personally. But the comptroller’s public statements are not constructive criticism. They are destructive and distracting.”

The Comptroller’s Office found the Urban League overbilled the county by tens of thousands of dollars last year, according to a review of the organization’s $1 million contract with the county. The community organization also failed to properly train its staff, protect children’s privacy in its digital records, or honor its reporting requirements with the Department of Social Services, the report found.

As a result, several legislators said they want more answers and more oversight of the Urban League, which receives roughly a fourth of its funding from Erie County.

Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo, who chaired the Finance Committee hearing, said Thursday’s discussion represents the first step in developing a “plan of action” for correcting agency deficiencies and ensuring better adherence to the county contract moving forward. He also criticized McDuffie for spending more time defending the agency than talking about how to fix the problems raised in the comptroller’s review.

“She came here with an attitude of defensiveness,” he said, “when I think she should have come with an attitude of contrition.”

No legislators disputed the value of the Urban League to the community, and several Democratic lawmakers objected to the lengthy hearing, saying that it felt like a courtroom inquisition. But other legislators said the nonprofit agency should not be exempt from serious scrutiny.

McDuffie said the issues raised by the Comptroller’s Office were promptly addressed. The Urban League conducted its own internal review and reimbursed the county for overcharges – an amount McDuffie stated in December was $30,576. Other procedural changes also were made as a result of the comptroller’s findings.

Michael Reville, chairman of the agency’s board of directors, vigorously defended the Urban League and McDuffie, saying the board recently unanimously passed three resolutions expressing confidence in McDuffie’s leadership, condemning Mychajliw’s public criticism of the agency, and providing the resources McDuffie needs to defend the agency’s reputation.

“We stand behind Brenda McDuffie 100 percent,” he said.

Mychajliw has publicly described the billing errors at the agency as either a problem of “gross mismanagement” or “outright fraud.” He was criticized for not attending Thursday’s hearing but said later that it’s common for his staff to address report findings and that his goal is to make sure the agency’s mistakes do not recur.

Two whistle-blowers, who were among eight staffers who signed a letter to the Comptroller’s Office in November 2014, told legislators the Urban League’s work environment was marked by “secrecy” and “intimidation.” They said they repeatedly raised issues about ethical and billing problems with their superiors, particularly Vice President Michelle Simpson, but had their concerns dismissed.

“When the case planners were tasked with getting 13 hours of billing per day and encouraged to ‘bill creatively’ in order to meet the contract requirements ... the Buffalo Urban League administration failed to hear our concerns and often told staff in other programs that we were complainers and whiners,” said former case planner Susan Looby.

McDuffie said the whistle-blowers did not share their concerns directly with her, nor did they make use of the agency’s internal whistle-blower process, which would have brought their concerns directly to the agency’s board of directors. She also shared that the two former employees who spoke at Thursday’s hearing also filed complaints with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the state Division of Human Rights and that their complaints were dismissed as unfounded.

Looby responded that those complaints were filed after the initial letter to the county comptroller was sent, not before. She said the letter signers knew their jobs might be at risk if they took their concerns outside the agency but didn’t trust that the matter would be properly handled in-house.