The former head of a nonprofit educational program based in New Orleans East has been arrested on charges she falsified records to the state Department of Education and used grant dollars to pay for personal expenses.
Kim Cassell, 52, who served as executive director of Open World Family Services, a now-defunct outreach program, faces counts of theft, filing false public records and violating the state ethics law that forbids nepotism.
Cassell, whose arrest has not previously been reported, was taken into custody last month, more than three months after the state legislative auditor, Daryl Purpera, raised questions about Open World’s finances and found Cassell used several thousand dollars in public funds for her personal benefit. Purpera, in a detailed audit, determined the nonprofit also improperly received more than $129,000 from the state by submitting falsified requests for reimbursement.
The New Orleans Police Department adopted Purpera’s findings as probable cause in obtaining a warrant for Cassell’s arrest.
Cassell’s defense attorney didn’t respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
The attorney who responded to the audit this year on behalf of Open World insisted Cassell had not intended to misappropriate any grant money and blamed any financial irregularities on the nonprofit’s sloppy bookkeeping and commingling of public and private funds.
“An overall review of the allegations, along with Ms. Cassell’s explanations, clearly shows a lack of understanding of the nonprofit governance rules as opposed to a willful disobedience thereof,” the attorney, Jauna Crear, wrote in a response to Purpera.
Open World, which dissolved in 2012, received public funds dating back to 2008 but only hired an external auditor — as required by law — to review its financial statements for 2010. That review turned up a host of problems in Open World’s accounting methods and found the nonprofit had been using grant money to pay for expenses such as daily lunches for employees and a spa retreat.
In response to those red flags, the legislative auditor launched his own review, examining Open World’s books for January 2009 to May 2012. The nonprofit received $1.5 million in state grants during that time, the bulk of which came from the Louisiana Department of Education in the form of a grant known as the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program.
Abuse of that same federally funded program prompted federal charges this year against Marcia Peterson, a gambling addict who recently pleaded guilty to embezzling tens of thousands of dollars while serving as executive director of CDC 58:12, a community development group in New Orleans. Peterson is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 17 in U.S. District Court.
In Cassell’s case, Purpera found Open World routinely submitted requests for reimbursement to the Department of Education for expenses the nonprofit had not incurred.
“Reimbursement requests were submitted for employee benefits totaling at least $13,079 which were not paid by Open World,” the legislative audit found.
The audit determined that Cassell, who held the nonprofit’s debit card and was the only employee to sign checks, spent nearly $6,000 from the nonprofit’s account on her personal travel.
Crear, in her response to the audit, said Cassell had used both personal and public funds during journeys to Liberia and Minnesota because the trips were both personal and business-related.
She said Cassell would make purchases for several hundred dollars for Open World using her own money but didn’t write herself reimbursement checks because she would use the nonprofit’s account for small transactions like pet supplies. “Ms. Cassell now understands the correct way to reimburse business expenses for which she used personal funds,” Crear added, “but she did not understand this at the time.”
The audit also said Cassell appeared to violate a state ethics law by hiring her brother and daughter at the nonprofit. She paid her brother some $11,000 for maintenance and construction work and preparing meals for a summer program; her daughter received about $7,500 for teaching children while she was in college.
Crear said Cassell “was not aware of the prohibition on hiring immediate family.”
“She did not hire her family because of their relation,” she wrote to Purpera. “She hired them because of their qualifications, coupled with their willingness to work for a limited income.”
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