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    Sheriff investigating Ridgecrest center

    An audit showing financial irregularities and deteriorating programs prompts the probe at the family center.

    By ERIC STIRGUS

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 13, 2001


    LARGO -- After an audit uncovered numerous financial irregularities and reports of financial records being shredded by the head of the Greater Ridgecrest Neighborhood Family Center, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office is conducting a criminal investigation of the agency.

    The review, conducted by the county's Juvenile Welfare Board, also found a "significant deterioration" of its programs.

    JWB staffers reported a host of other irregularities that include:

    The executive director was paid $934.48 for overtime, holiday pay or vacation pay that she was not supposed to receive.

    Employee time sheets were altered without the approval of staff.

    Bank statements were incomplete for May and June 2001.

    Several workers at the center say they saw their boss, Fran Philpot-Scott, shredding time sheets and other financial documents, according to JWB officials.

    Philpot-Scott, who has since resigned from the organization, called the charges "malicious rumors" and "unfounded."

    "My commitment has never wavered from my community," she said Thursday. "My track record stands behind me."

    JWB will handle the center's finances while Loretta Mitchell, the group's program coordinator, is in charge of its day-to-day operations, JWB Executive Director Jim Mills said.

    "This was a community that pulled together to start this center," said Mills. "Things were looking extremely solid and then they sort of disintegrated."

    In a letter to Mills, Philpot-Scott accuses JWB staffers of lying about some of the reported irregularities and offered to help resolve any discrepancies.

    The JWB had planned to conduct its annual review of the center this month, but did it on June 18 after getting telephone calls from residents who were concerned about possible misdeeds.

    Mills said his staff has not been able to determine why the documents were shredded. JWB policy requires that all records be kept a minimum of five years. The center was not incorporated until early 1998 and JWB officials believe the documents shredded were compiled earlier this year.

    Auditors will also try to figure out how $9,593 JWB advanced to the center last year was spent.

    The center came about from an April 1997 community meeting in which Pinellas County officials wanted to find out what services residents wanted in Ridgecrest, a predominantly African-American neighborhood near Largo that has traditionally been underserved by the county.

    A year later, the Greater Ridgecrest Area Board of Directors was formed to work on projects to improve the neighborhood. The board oversaw the family center, which created and took over several programs to help area residents.

    But auditors found that two of those programs, Brothers Helping Others, and SISTA (Sisters Interacting Successfully to Achieve) had no participants. They were also unable to verify through the center's files that SWAP (Sisters With A Purpose) has 12 participants.

    Additionally, the center's program to help people earn their high school equivalency certificates was terminated due to lack of participation.

    The center's current annual budget is $185,285.

    Several board members of the family center did not return telephone calls or declined to talk about the situation.

    -- Times staff writer Monique Fields contributed to this report.

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