Charity and Checkpoint
On a recent blistering, sticky afternoon, the corner of NW Seventh Street and First Avenue is teeming with vagabond men and women looking for a free meal or an empty cot inside the Camillus House shelter in downtown Miami. The sidewalk smells like a pungent cauldron of salt-crusted dry urine and untreated B.O. A group of haggard chaps lingers near the shelter's chainlink fence. A slender, goateed drifter wearing a black fanny pack, black shorts, a black T-shirt, and Carolina blue Air Jordan sandals ambles down the block with the aid of a wooden cane. He calls himself Rock Trailer because he doesn't want to divulge his true identity out of concern that shelter officials may not like what he has to say about Camillus House. Rock Trailer fears his comments to a reporter might add a few more days to his month-long banishment from the shelter for an infraction he doesn't want to elaborate on either.
Rock Trailer does reveal he has relied on the charity's assistance since 1988 rating the service at Camillus House a nine out of ten. "Some days are better than others," he says, the setting sun glimmering off his bifocal spectacles. "But they really help you if you want it. I've gotten treatments for medical problems, dental care, and eyeglasses. The food is pretty good too. Every day is a different menu."
Feeding people like Rock Trailer is only one of several humanitarian services Camillus House provides for the benefit of Miami's destitute. Through private donations and government grants averaging ten million dollars a year, the charity runs substance-abuse intervention programs and provides fully furnished apartments and free medical care to anybody on the streets. According to Camillus's most recent financial statement, Miami's premier nonprofit spent more than nine million dollars feeding, housing, and healing the downtrodden during fiscal year 2004. It provided 360,000 free meals and treated 5213 people, including 1237 children, at its free clinic.
The Toronto-based Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd opened Camillus House in 1960 to help Cuban exiles escaping Fidel Castro's revolution. Like most Roman Catholic religious orders, the brothers take vows of chastity and poverty. Over the past four-and-a-half decades, the brothers have turned Camillus House into a full-service homeless assistance center, including the free clinic housed in the charity's headquarters at 336 NW Fifth St. In addition to the downtown Miami shelter, Camillus operates twelve other homeless assistance satellites in Miami-Dade County.
Not all of Camillus's clients have nice things to say about their nonprofit benefactor, though. A tall, lean, ebony woman with an awkward gait strolls up to the entrance of the shelter's courtyard, where several dozen hobos are waiting to get a bed for the night. She is dressed in soiled black-and-white pants and a gray extra-large T-shirt that droops over her emaciated frame. Her fungus-fortified dreads protrude like tentacles from a colorful silk scarf tied around her forehead. She is Deborah Ford, a 49-year-old street hooker who asserts that Camillus shelter workers mistreat the people who come in for help.
Like a naughty child who didn't receive all the toys on her Christmas gift list, Ford complains Camillus staffers routinely curse at homeless people. Some staffers sink even lower, Ford accuses, by selling bus tokens that are supposed to be given away. "They cuss at us all day," Ford grumbles. "They tell us to sit the fuck down or get the fuck out. But if we cuss back, we're banned for 30 days can't take a shower, can't eat. Camillus has been shitting on the homeless for a long time."
Sam Gil, Camillus marketing director, emphatically refutes Ford's declarations. "No one is selling bus tokens," Gil explains. "But we don't just give tokens away to everyone. We try to verify if someone has a legitimate reason like an appointment we can't drive them to. We don't want to give clients a bus token so they can turn around and sell it for something else like a can of beer."
Gil says Camillus does not tolerate any profanity from its employees either. "As far as clients are concerned," Gil continues, "we've had instances with individuals getting abusive and violent. For issues of safety, we will remove those people from our facility."
Even so, Ford knows not everyone working for the charity has the best interests of the homeless at heart. That was certainly evident this past December when Camillus's former executive director Dale Simpson was arrested on state charges he defrauded the charity of more than $10,000 worth of building materials and used Camillus employees and clients to install brick pavers, build water-retention walls, remodel a kitchen, and assist with other projects on his properties in Miami and Stuart between January 1, 2002, and December 31, 2003. He was booked on two counts of tax fraud and one count of petty theft. This past July, the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office amended its complaint dropping the petty theft charge and adding seven counts of sales tax evasion. In essence, Simpson is accused of exploiting a charity meant to help the poor and the homeless so he could save himself some money improving his homes. He faces up to 24 years in prison if convicted.
Camillus's board and the brothers quickly distanced themselves from Simpson a man the brothers once protected from scrutiny until state investigators came knocking on the charity's door. At the time, Camillus chairman and Carnival Cruise Lines president Bob Dickinson called Simpson's conduct an isolated event. "It is the sincere hope of Camillus House that today's arrest of Dale Simpson brings to a close an unfortunate chapter in this exceptional organization's history," Dickinson pontificated in a prepared statement following Simpson's ride to the booking station. Dickinson promised the public that Camillus was now in "good hands" under the leadership of the charity's new president, Paul Ahr, a psychologist who previously worked as a consultant for Camillus.
However, several incidents that occurred under Simpson's reign indicate the former executive director was not the only charity employee involved in some questionable, and possibly illegal, activities using Camillus resources. For instance, Simpson allegedly allowed Camillus housing services director Stephanie Giering and former warehouse supervisor Kevin Brewton to sell several pieces of jewelry worth $95,000 donated to the charity by a local pawn broker at half their true value. According to sources familiar with the sale, Giering and Brewton also kept some of the trinkets for themselves.
According to a federal lawsuit filed this past March 4 against Camillus by its former development director, Tyrone Hart, Simpson and Camillus government relations director Peter England were reimbursing employees for campaign contributions to City of Miami political candidates in 2003 a violation of state campaign finance laws, which is considered a first-degree felony. Hart also alleged Simpson concealed a $52,000 payment to a volunteer assisting England with the charity's fundraising in 2004.
It seems the Little Brothers may also have taken advantage of Camillus. In 2001 the brothers, who have taken public vows of poverty, used $394,000 in Camillus funds, money that could have fed Rock Trailer and Deborah Ford 104,232 meals, to add four bedrooms, four bathrooms, and a family room to their Morningside residence.
Lazaro Chang and Eduardo Mena, two former Camillus employees who were laid off this past June, say Ahr and Dickinson do not want the public to know about the additional improprieties that occurred under Simpson's watch. During an interview at New Times's offices following their dismissal, both men, who are witnesses in the state's case against Simpson, were upset by their terminations. "I really enjoyed working there," Mena said. "I felt like I was truly helping people."
Mena, a pudgy 55-year-old Cuban American with blue eyes and silvery hair cut military style, was hired by Camillus in October 1998. He earned $29,000 a year as the charity's transportation supervisor. "I was responsible for picking up donations that came in through the transportation department," Mena said. "I also managed the routes, took inventory of items received, and made arrangements to pick up goods with the donors."
According to state prosecutors, Mena spent 13.5 hours on Camillus's dime doing chores for Simpson. "I never questioned anything Dale did because for sure I would lose my job," Mena said. "That is how he ran things."
Chang, a 64-year-old from Camagüey, Cuba, joined Camillus in 2000. Chang, who was paid an annual salary of $18,000, began as a driver, but a back injury in 2003 relegated him to the warehouse, answering phone calls for donation pick-ups. When he was a driver, Chang recalls, he would pick up luxurious furniture from homes in Aventura, North Miami Beach, and other upscale communities. "Camillus would donate the stuff to churches, homeless people, and the clients in the recovery programs," Chang said. "When I would tell people Camillus does not resell its donations, they would give you more things."
According to Simpson's arrest warrant, Chang received orders March 28, 2002, to pick up furniture from City Furniture and deliver it to Simpson's vacation house in Stuart. Prosecutors allege Simpson defrauded Camillus of $358.65 in labor that afternoon. "I worked ten hours on the day I picked up his furniture," Chang said. "There were definitely a series of abnormalities and anomalies that existed when I worked there."
Simpson's attorney is also playing the cover-up card as part of his client's defense. A towering transplanted New Yorker with a hard jaw and steady hazel eyes, criminal defense lawyer Richard Marx counters that his client has been wrongly accused by disgruntled employees and some members of Camillus's board of directors who didn't agree with Simpson's difficult management style. "Dale was a heavy-handed taskmaster who got results," Marx says during a recent interview at his Flagler Street office. "But he had no motive to do anything dishonest."
Marx also questioned why Camillus has retained criminal defense lawyer John Thorton to represent every employee who is on the witness list. "Why is Camillus paying for him?" Marx asked rhetorically. "What is Camillus worried about? My client is the one standing trial."
Ahr and Dickinson claim Camillus House is in great shape these days. The charity is gearing up for its biggest fundraiser of the year, the Camillus House Gala, which is held in conjunction with the United Way's Mayor's Ball in November. Last year Camillus and the United Way raised more than $1.5 million. The charity also seeks more private donations to help pay for Camillus's long-awaited new home near Cedars Medical Center. More revelations of corruption within the organization would certainly hamper efforts to raise money.
"I really have no desire to go over things that occurred with the previous administration," Dickinson says during a recent interview. "It's old news. We have untold levels of checks and balances now. We have much better safeguards in place."
Chang wholeheartedly disagrees: "The donating public has a right to know what goes on inside Camillus House."
Following Dale Simpson's departure from Camillus, the board hired Ahr on April 28, 2004, to fix the damage and negative publicity generated by the former executive director's arrest. Ahr held the title of interim executive director for six months until he was selected by the board to be Camillus's new president a position that had been vacated by the departure of Brother Savio Charron, the clergyman to whom Simpson reported.
Ahr, who earns $180,000 a year, was already familiar with the charity when he joined Camillus. He ran Altenhar Group, a management consulting firm with clients in St. Louis and Miami. Ahr is also a former director of Missouri's Department of Health and the author of two books on mental healthcare. In late 2002 Altenhar won a bid to assist Camillus devise a long-term strategic plan for providing care to the poor and homeless. "We were asked to determine the capacity for Camillus's new facility," Ahr recalls during a recent telephone interview. "The other part was to figure out how to develop vocational programs to help our clients find jobs." Ahr's firm received $55,000 for its services. He met periodically with Simpson and reported to the board's government relations committee headed by former Miami Beach City Manager Roger Carlton.
Ahr spent his first 90 days as interim executive director reorganizing the facilities and maintenance department, where most of the employees who worked on Simpson's properties were assigned.
"The warehouse was bursting at the seams when I got here," Ahr says. "There were pieces of furniture we had no use for." Ahr notes Camillus has an arrangement with City Furniture to receive free furniture for the charity's apartment complexes and halfway houses. "City Furniture has been very, very generous to us," Ahr says. City Furniture president Keith Koenig sits on the Camillus board. Ahr decided Camillus would collect furniture only on an as-needed basis and limit most pick-ups to food. Ahr also determined he would need fewer drivers on the road collecting goods. As a result, Camillus eliminated six positions in the warehouse and transportation departments. That decision prompted Ahr to lay off Mena and Chang in the summer. The former employees say Ahr used the reorganization as an excuse to get rid of them. Chang and Mena claim Ahr had developed a personal relationship with Simpson during the time Ahr was working as the charity's consultant. During a staff meeting while they were still employed by Camillus, Chang and Mena claim Ahr made the following statement: "I have nothing bad to say about Dale Simpson. He was very good to me when I was here."
Ahr confirmed he made the comment, but he did not intend his words to be interpreted that he was a friend of Simpson's. Ahr says most of his interaction was with Carlton's committee, not Simpson. "There was a fair amount of grumbling regarding Dale when I started as interim director," Ahr explains. "I just wanted people to know I didn't have a beef with him. I didn't want to get caught up with who liked and who didn't like Dale."
Among the individuals who did not like Simpson were Chang, Mena, and their former supervisor, Gabriel Roqueta, facilities and properties administrator. Roqueta, who reported directly to Simpson, supervised all employees in the maintenance and transportation departments. He is also a key witness in the case against the former executive director. According to Chang and Mena, Ahr methodically stripped away all of Roqueta's responsibilities during the last thirteen months they were employed with Camillus. Ahr says Roqueta had "a lot on his plate" and decided to reassign him to a new position in which he is the charity's point man for contractors. "Gabe probably had the hardest job at Camillus," Ahr says. "He had a lot of responsibilities under his wing. His real strength is out in the community talking to vendors. With the new building I need someone who can deal with that."
Roqueta would comment for this article only with Ahr's permission. Ahr denied New Times's request to interview Roqueta citing Camillus's policy that prohibits employees other than himself and marketing director Sam Gil from speaking to the media.
Upon dismissing the claims he targeted whistleblowers, Ahr addressed the sale of the donated jewelry to Robin's in the Grove, a jeweler in Coconut Grove, which Ahr admits was not handled properly.
Sometime in 2002 one of Camillus's regular donors approached Stephanie Giering and Kevin Brewton in the parking lot of the charity's executive building on NW Fifth Street, Ahr relates. He declined to name the woman, citing the charity's privacy rules. New Times has identified her as Sofia Zuleta, who owns Don Z Cash & Pawn Shop in Coral Gables. Zuleta says she handed Giering several pieces of jewelry as a donation. After that, Zuleta says, she does not know what Camillus did with the jewelry. "Dale told them to document it and lock it up," Ahr says.
Giering and Brewton took photographs of the jewelry and made a list describing the items, Ahr continues. Then they were placed in a safe. Subsequently Giering recommended that Camillus House could sell the jewelry to Robin in the Grove. Sources familiar with the transaction told Ahr that Giering and Brewton sold the items at a fraction of their actual worth and that the two employees had kept a gold watch and a diamond ring for themselves.
But Ahr says store owner Henry Azoulay provided Camillus with a fair market appraisal that the charity accepted. "My understanding is that Stephanie and Kevin also bought the jewelry [they kept] at the price of the appraisal," Ahr says. "I tried to get the jewelry back, but they had already given them away as gifts to loved ones."
Zuleta gave Camillus more jewelry on four subsequent occasions. Each time, the baubles were sold to Azoulay. But Camillus employees did not photograph or inventory the additional jewelry donations as they had done during the first transaction, Ahr says. According to Sam Gil, Azoulay paid Camillus $55,000 for all the jewelry.
During a recent New Times visit to his hole-in-the-wall store at 3414 Main Hwy., Coconut Grove, next door to Yucky's head shop, Azoulay, a skinny bald man with a bushy salt-and-pepper mustache, did not want to discuss the purchase. "It was a personal business transaction," Azoulay says. "And I don't talk about my business with reporters."
Brewton is no longer working for Camillus and could not be reached for comment. Giering would not comment for this article without permission from Ahr, who, citing Camillus's ban on employee-reporter conversations, declined New Times's request to speak with her.
On another front, Camillus put the clamp on Tyrone Hart's lawsuit, which accused Simpson and Camillus government relations director Peter England of some serious criminal behavior. This past September 27, Camillus settled with Hart, the charity's development director from January 21, 2003, until September 10, 2003. Hart had sued Camillus in federal court, claiming Simpson forced him to resign because he refused to follow Simpson's orders. Hart says he cannot comment under the terms of his settlement.
According to Hart's complaint, England requested he make a $500 contribution to a local political candidate. Hart complied and made the donation. Approximately fifteen days later, the complaint alleges, Camillus reimbursed Hart's contribution. Under state law, employers are prohibited from reimbursing employees for political campaign donations.
Hart accused Simpson and England of trying to coerce him into illegal campaign contributions on six separate occasions. In the suit, Hart said Simpson told him there was no reason he shouldn't contribute the money since Camillus was reimbursing him. Hart's lawsuit also claimed Simpson secretly paid $52,000 from the development department's budget to Jim Russell, a supposedly nonpaid volunteer helping Camillus solicit monetary contributions. Hart said he objected to Russell's payment but was warned by Simpson to stop making a fuss about it.
One could conclude Camillus's board was thinking strategically when it decided to settle with Hart. In effect, Hart was accusing Simpson and England of using money meant for the poor to pay off political favors. If any Camillus employee were to corroborate Hart's allegations under oath, that testimony could seriously hurt the charity's credibility among donors. But Ahr insists that is not why Camillus settled.
"We settled with Hart because we agreed on a severance package," Ahr says. "But we were prepared to go to trial. We would have vigorously defended Camillus House." Ahr also says he investigated Hart's allegations on his own. He claims he spoke to all the executive staff members who worked with Tyrone Hart on the third floor of Camillus's headquarters.
"No one can substantiate what Ty said," Ahr recollects. "No one can say they felt coerced into making political contributions. There are employees who have given campaign donations as private citizens. But Camillus House doesn't get involved in political fundraising."
Ahr also noted Russell's fundraising effort was a paid gig that was fully disclosed. According to Ahr, board chairman Bob Dickinson had recommended Simpson retain the services of Russell to assist in the charity's fundraising. "There was no secret about it," Ahr insists. "There was a contract drawn up to pay this guy a stipend on a weekly basis to do fundraising and report to Dale."
Simpson's defense lawyer Richard Marx says his client forced Hart to resign because he possessed a poor attitude, insulted donors, and failed to follow Simpson's instructions. "All of a sudden Ty Hart is the second coming," Marx sneers. "He could claim Dale is an ax murderer and people would believe him."
In the case of the mysterious volunteer fundraiser, Marx says Dickinson pressured Simpson to hire Russell. "According to Dale, Russell was getting paid $1000 a week and he had to raise $2000 a month," Marx relates. "He was pressured by the board chairman to hire him. Russell resigned before Dale could fire him."
Marx adds that Simpson wanted to fire Russell because he did not secure a single contribution during his employment with Camillus. "That caused some real tension between Dale and Mr. Dickinson," Marx says.
There was a day when the brothers who founded Camillus House would eat and sleep in the same shelter that housed the hundreds of homeless people the charity serves. It was a time when the brothers seemed to have taken their public vow of poverty seriously. But since 1994, the brothers have become primary examples of the corruption that has seeped into Camillus's noble mission. That year the Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd paid $195,000 for a beautiful modernist house on a corner lot in Morningside, the heavily shaded, serene bayside neighborhood in northeast Miami.
By 2001 the brothers had added four bedrooms, four bathrooms, and a family room to their modest three-bedroom, two-bathroom house at 680 NE 52nd St. They paid for part of the renovation with the $245,000 profit from the sale of the house they had occupied next door. (Charities Unlimited of Florida holds title to all the properties operated by Camillus. The brothers sit on Charities' board of directors.) When the project ran into some cost overruns, the brothers tapped Camillus House funds for the $195,000 needed to finish the renovation. That's $395,000 Camillus could have used to house a family of four for 131 years.
Ahr has since reached a deal with the order's brother superior general in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to have the Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd reimburse Camillus the $195,000. The brothers will pay back the money once Camillus stops using the brothers' Morningside residence as collateral for the charity's line of credit, Ahr explains. Camillus plans to use instead its downtown Miami shelter as collateral. "We're just waiting for the bank to approve it," says Ahr.
An even better idea would be for the brothers sell the house once Camillus builds its new home. On September 13, Ahr and Dickinson announced an agreement with the University of Miami that will allow the charity to build its long-awaited facility.
For the past 21 years, Miami's elected officials and real estate developers have groaned that the downtown Miami shelter has hindered redevelopment of the area owing to the concentration of homeless people. Today's unprecedented building boom has speculators salivating over the shelter's current location. Realtors in the downtown market say the Camillus property is worth several million dollars today. "We've had some inquiries," Sam Gil acknowledges. "Obviously any deal is contingent on us being able to move into our new building."
Nearly every time Camillus has identified a new location for the shelter, the Miami City Commission has squashed those plans because of opposition by homeowners who don't want homeless people roaming their neighborhoods. In 2002 the city commission killed a deal in which Miami's Community Redevelopment Agency would have bought the shelter and relocated it to a site in Overtown. Almost two years later, Miami commissioners torpedoed a proposal for Camillus to build its new facility on a five-acre lot the charity controls on NW Seventh Avenue between Eighteenth and Nineteenth streets, near the Civic Center medical complex.
Under the proposed deal, Camillus and the University of Miami would swap land near the Civic Center complex. Camillus would shift its project five blocks south to Fifteenth Street on a smaller parcel abutting I-95 currently owned by UM. The university would build a bioscience center on the land on NW Seventh Avenue that Camillus currently controls.
The construction of Camillus's new facility is expected to cost $30 million and will double the size of the shelter. The brothers' Morningside home has a market value of $600,000 a nice chunk of change to help the fundraising effort. And the gesture would probably go a long way in restoring the public's faith in Camillus's mission.
However, David Lynch, the order's brother general in Toronto, says that is a highly unlikely scenario. "I wouldn't even think about it," Lynch says. "That would be taking a step backward."
Selling the Morningside property and moving in to the new center with the homeless would be wrong, Lynch argues. "Why should we take up space there when we already have a home?" he says, noting that all of the millions of dollars from the future sale of the downtown shelter land would help pay for the new site.
In the early Nineties, Lynch expounds, the Little Brothers hierarchy decided to move all the brothers to off-ministry sites. "I have an obligation to ensure the brothers are physically, emotionally, and spiritually healthy," Lynch reasons. When the brothers lived at the shelter, Lynch remembers, they couldn't escape the daily grind of dealing with Miami's high-strung homeless population. "Now they have a healthy home environment to go to after a full day's work," he says.
Lynch, who visits Camillus three to four times a year, recalls the Miami shelter also needed more space for its assistance programs, so the decision was made to move the brothers into a house near Miami International Airport. "We couldn't hear ourselves think because of all the airplanes flying overhead," he describes. "It was also a very dangerous neighborhood."
In 1994 the brothers bought two houses in Morningside and moved uptown. Lynch says the brothers decided in 2001 that it made more sense to sell one house and expand their current residence on the corner of 52nd Street. "We eat, pray, and work together," Lynch says. "Two houses was not conducive to our way of life."
Lynch notes that religious orders like the Little Brothers face on a regular basis the question of whether their actions are just. "But sometimes I have to think with a business hat as well," he rationalizes. "I am responsible for the brothers' healthcare, education, physical well-being, and their retirement. Even the scriptures say a man is entitled to his keep."
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