Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity’s Board of Directors fired Executive Director Sharon Myles earlier this month after the board was presented with an internal review of five independent contracts that show financial inconsistencies and an alleged personal relationship with one of the contractors.
The findings are contained in a report prepared for the board by attorney Thomas W. Scroggins of Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete LLC, which was provided to AL.com by the JCCEO Board. The report was presented to the directors in mid-October. Myles was dismissed on November 1 after unsatisfactorily responding to the allegations noted, according to board chair Gary Richardson. The five “contract for services” agreements were also terminated.
In the weeks after Myles was fired the agency announced it had a $2 million deficit, was pressured to give up its grant to manage federal Head Start programs, and announced that layoffs were imminent. On Wednesday the agency laid off all of its 258 employees.
And this week Richardson, after a vote of the board, sent a letter asking the Alabama Ethics Commission to investigate Myles.
Myles had not responded to requests for comment by AL.com prior to publication of this article. Fox 6 News reports Myles has denied any misuse of funds.
There is no indication that any agency has begun an investigation into the issues raised by the board.
JCCEO, created 56 years ago, has operated programs to help reduce poverty and help low-income residents of Jefferson County. Its programs have included Head Start, utility and rental assistance programs, assistance during extreme hot or cold weather, and home weatherization projects to help low-income homeowners save money.
When the JCCEO board fired Myles it also cancelled the contracts with five other employees including a man whom the report indicated may have had a personal relationship with Myles. The internal report looks at the different contracts.
Thompson “Tommy” Nsuk contract
One contract was with Thompson “Tommy” Nsuk. In the report, interim CEO Brenda Singellos reported Tommy Nsuk began working for JCCEO as a Facilities Consultant about a month after Myles was hired as Executive Director. At the time, the agency employed Charlie Vargas as Director of Facilities, Maintenance and Repairs, Director of Transportation, and Director of Weatherization, titles he held from July 2017 until resigning on July 30, 2021.
Tommy Nsuk’s most recent contract ran from January 2, 2021, to December 31, 2021, at $75 per hour for three eight-hour days each week ($1,800 weekly). Any hours above 24 each week were to be paid at $30 per hour, which Scroggins thought was a typo “as the rate is substantially lower than the rate of $75 an hour notes for the first 24 hours worked in the week.
Tommy Nsuk was “entered into the ADP payroll system with a “hire date” of August 9, 2021, the report states. “It is unclear why he was entered in on that date as he had been a contractor for nearly two years,” the report continues. “ADP does not show a pay rate for him and in fact, the records state ‘No Rate’ where other contractors have some hourly rate or salary stated in the field,” the report reads.
Tommy Nsuk was paid $4,080 on September 10, 2021, but it was voided for a $6,912.12 payment, the report states. On September 24, he was paid $5,280, according to the report.
From the report: “Vargas first noticed Nsuk at JCCEO shortly after Ms. Myles was hired around October 2020. Then around January 2020 he (Vargas) says Myles and he had a “closed door” meeting in her office between just the two of them. Myles told him at this meeting that she and Nsuk were in a relationship, and he was soon to be her husband. She told Vargas that JCCEO would engage Nsuk as an independent contractor Facilities Consultant to work with Vargas because she knew Nsuk could not report to her directly because of a conflict of interest.
“Vargas says once Nsuk was engaged that Vargas’ role changed,” the report states. “Vargas had no authority and the decision-making was done by Nsuk. The de facto situation was that Vargas reported to Nsuk. Vargas did not see or approve Nsuk’s time or invoices which were submitted directly to the Finance department for processing and payment.“
Vargas states he was directed by Myles and Nsuk to pick up and drop Nsuk off from a house in Gardendale beginning around late January or early February 2020. Vargas lives in Decatur and would drive to Birmingham to work, according to the report. He did as instructed and began driving Nsuk to and from work each day, the report states.
“Vargas knew that Myles and Nsuk lived together in the Gardendale house,” the report states. “He saw Nsuk’s personal car, a Mercedes convertible, parked in the garage. He saw Myles and Nsuk there together inside the home.”
Scroggins, according to the report, obtained copies of Tommy Nsuk’s divorce case against his former wife in Jefferson County Circuit Court in 2020, which contained an address for Tommy Nsuk that “matches the address that Vargas reported picking up Nsuk and dropping him off …”
Richardson says the board asked Myles to explain her relationship with Tommy Nsuk.
According to minutes of the JCCEO board meeting when she was fired: “The Board offered to give Ms. Myles a chance to respond to the allegations that were being made against her. Ms. Myles stated that the contracted workers were hired with funds from the American Rescue Act temporarily which is why they are not permanent employees of the agency. She also went on the inform the Board that Mr. Nsuk is a long-time family friend who she let use her address to receive mail from time to time.”
Among the contracts reviewed in the report by the attorneys, was one with Rev. Lawrence Jackson, lead pastor at Greater Grace Missionary Baptist Church in Center Point to serve as a Behavioral (or Health) Specialist. There is a discrepancy in the actual contact, which notes a term beginning in July 26, 2021, and ending May 30, 2021, which is an obvious error. Written next to the latter date by hand is “maybe 2022″. The rate of $5,000 per month ($50,000 total), according to the report.
Pay records indicate Jackson was paid $2,500 on September 20, 2021, and $2,500 on September 24, 2021, the report states.
In the summer of 2021, JCCEO leased space at Greater Grace for a Head Start program at the rate of $10,000 per month, the report states.
Jackson was assigned duties at Great Grace church and the Craig Pouncey Head Start centers, according to the report. Directors of the Pouncey and Greater Grace Head Start centers both reported in early October that Jackson had not done any work at the centers, according to the report.
In a telephone call with AL.com, Jackson offered further explanation of the two contracts, and vehemently defended his role.
On November 20, 2020, a fire destroyed Greater Grace’s original building in Centerpoint. Five months later, it moved into a new home in a building purchased from First Baptist Church of Center Point. “We were just blessed to get it,” Jackson said. “They said, ‘We want you to have a nice place. We’re moving out because we’re older.’ The church is just a huge place, way more than we can imagine, but God let us get it.”
Jackson says Myles contacted him soon thereafter and said JCCEO was looking for a place on the East side to place a Head Start facility. “I said, ‘Sure, we got a whole side we don’t use.’” He says the agency brought a contingent to the facility, then offered the 12-month contract to rent the facility. “What pastor in the world wouldn’t want to do a contract for $120,000 a year and you got the space to do it?” Jackson said. “Any pastor would be a fool not to do it. Not only would it benefit the church, it would benefit [JCCEO] .”
Jackson said the church was paid once–$30,000 for July, August, September, but nothing since.
Regarding his personal independent contractor agreement, Jackson says he has a Masters’ degree in social work from Alabama A&M, so he approached Myles about any opportunities to utilize those services with the agency. “I’m a go-getter,” he said. “Always have been.”
He said Myles informed him a Behavioral Specialist position was available. He says he sent a resume and was told he would be assigned to the Greater Grace and Pouncey sites, starting in August. “To date, nobody from JCCEO gave me any guidelines,” he said. “Go Monday, Tuesday‚ and Wednesday. I’m thinking, ‘When can I go?’”
Jackson said the role of a Behavioral Specialist is to respond to inquiries when a child displays behaviors issues, “or a child is out to control,” he said. “Then you would go see by the child, do an intervention, whatever is necessary to brief the parent, write up in assessment, all that comfortable. No problem. I’ve done that.”
Jackson said no work was done at Greater Grace because the facility never opened. “There are no kids, so there’s no need for me as a behavior specialist,” he said. “That’s the only reason why I haven’t gone.”
Pouncey returned to in-person school on September 21. “Typically, you don’t go there in the first or second week because you presume everyone’s on their best behavior,” he said.
In mid-October, Jackson said he went to Pouncey and introduced himself to teachers and students. “They were pretty much all okay,” he said. “Maybe one or two kids cursing. I talked to them. That’s my first initial assessment. Since then, I’ve had no calls. My second assessment will be probably later in the year. I got no calls.
“They’ve had a behavioral specialist before, and they only went twice a year to do assessments–unless they were called for specific incidences. Why did the rules change for me? How can they gauge what somebody ain’t doing when you have no students at one place and the other place just started back on September 21st How can you gauge what anyone was doing in a month and make it look like this guy ain’t doing full due and I’m in a fraudulent contract?
Finally, Jackson said he sent a letter to every board member asking for an opportunity to address them about the agreements. He said he received no response.
Jackson also said he was not contacted by attorney Scroggins, who prepared the report.
“Thank God, [my members] they know me,” he said. “They know my heart, so they called me and said, ‘Pastor, we know better.’ I ain’t perfect but, man, but I love my community and if I didn’t think I was qualified for this job, [Myles] couldn’t have made me take it.”
Another terminated contract belonged to Bilingual Special Michelle Ortiz, who was assigned to the Festival Head Start center. Her rate was $15.18 per hour, starting on August 2, 2021, through May 30, 2022, the report states. Ortiz was designated in payroll as a “new hire” on August 23, 2021, and was paid $1,200 biweekly, according to the report. That amount translates to $15/hr. “[This] is inconsistent with the rate specified in her contract,” it states in the report.
“The ADP records reflect Ortiz is not using the Time and Attendance system and does not have any taxes deducted from her compensation, which would indicate JCCEO has her classified as an independent contractor,” the report states.
The report also notes Ortiz was assigned an agency automobile “for her use even though her contract states she is to provide her own transportation.” Neither of JCCEO’s two other bilingual specialists had an agency automobile, according to the report.
In March 2020, four months after being hired, Myles terminated Chief Financial Officer Richard Wells. Successor Jaqueline Hill was hired on November 16, 2020, then terminated on February 17, 2021, according to the report.
JCCEO brought on Ann Massa as an “independent contractor interim CFO through Mississippi Early”, according to the report. (ME provides “fiscal, program management training and technical assistance to entities nationwide) She began work “approximately July to August 2020, after Myles had terminated most of the employees In the Finance Department.”
That ME contract states Massa is “key personnel,” according to the report. Yet, although a pay rate for her was not reflected in JCCEO’s payroll system, she was paid $79,800 between Aug. 19 and Sept. 24, 2021, according to the report.
Massa’s contract was among those terminated on November 1.
Keenan Nsuk Contract
Keenan Nsuk, son of Tommy Nsuk, was contracted to serve as a custodian between September 1, 2021, to December 30, 2021, at a rate of $16 per hour for 40 hours, “making it a full-time engagement,” the report states, although the contract required submitted invoices.
The report also states there was “no staffing requisition for a new custodian position, which is the customary process”.
On August 9, 2021, Nsuk was entered into the JCCEO’s payroll system at a rate of $15 per hour, the report noted, different from the contract rate. On September 10, 2021, he was paid $1,560, though it was voided and replaced with a $1,859.34 payment, the report states. “That amount would reflect 123.96 hours worked over the two-week pay period or 61.9 hours per week.
Nsuk’s contract was among those terminated on November 1.
The report concludes that Keenan Nsuk, another custodian, Derrick Bryant (he was found to be working without a contract), and Ortiz are “misclassified” as independent contractors.
“All three persons are paid an hourly rate to perform full-time work the same as other JCCEO employees,” Scroggins wrote. “In my opinion, they do not pass the IRS’ or Alabama Department of Revenue’s independent contractor tests and thus their misclassification exposes JCCEO to liability for employment taxes and benefits to these persons.”
AL.com reached out to Myles, Tommy Nsuk, Ortiz for comment on the information contained in the report. None have yet to offer comment. Ortiz was reached but did not want to comment.
JCCEO Financial Woes
A day after finding out the agency had a $2 million deficit, the board was pressured to relinquish a Head Start grant representing about 90% of JCCEO’s $37 million annual budget. “We didn’t have much of a choice,” Richardson. “[Head Start] regional told us, ‘Either relinquish it or we will take from you, and you will never be able to file for a federal grant ever again.’ By relinquishing the grant, it gives the opportunity to come back in four to five years and re-apply.
Richardson said programs funded by the grant will continue, thus avoiding the loss of myriad jobs in the midst of the holiday season. “The services and facilities will still be ongoing, and none of the people who receive those services will be affected by it,” Richardson said. “But it will no longer be administered by JCCEO. It will be administered by another third party or by Head Start.”
The edict to the board from Head Start was precipitated, Richardson said, by the discovery of a letter written to Head Start by board member Rev. T.L. Lewis. “He wrote a letter … [asking] them to reinstate [Myles], [saying] that the board erroneously fired the executive director and that 10 members of the board need to be removed.”
The letter was forwarded by Head Start to Singellos, who read it to the board on Monday. Lewis was among the 10 members in attendance.
After the letter was read, Richardson moved to remove Lewis from the board for “interfering with a board action.” The motion was seconded; the vote was six in favor, two against, with two abstentions.
Lewis has not responded to requests by AL.com to comment about his removal from the board.
To avoid severe cuts and layoffs—at least momentarily—the agency is asking $1.5 million each from Jefferson County and the City of Birmingham.
Richardson says he has been “in discussions” with Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin and Jefferson County Commissioner Tyson about the lifeline.
This story appeared originally on the AL.com website.