HOPE's Director Fights Rumors

Published 4:07 pm Tuesday, June 25, 2013

FARMVILLE – Dr. Kitty Smith has heard them all.

Every rumor.

The executive director of HOPE Community Services, Inc. told The Herald during a Monday interview that, “I have heard six different versions of my being locked up.”

Email newsletter signup

In jail?

Yes, that's what she heard.

“At least three times,” she said, noting another rumor to have reached her ears, “I was led out of the building with handcuffs on.

“The last version,” continued Dr. Smith, who has a Doctorate in Ministry from Virginia University of Lynchburg, “was that my pastor had to bail me out of jail. And that's when he realized things had gotten out of hand. I've had a couple of pastors contact me to ask, 'What in the world is going on?' They were appalled that this rumor was going in their community and had spilled over into their churches. Because of course my colleagues know me, have a lot of trust that I would never do anything like this, so they were really concerned,” said Dr. Smith, who is also a pastor.

What do the rumors that reach her ears claim she was arrested for doing?

“Whether they thought I embezzled, they must have thought I did something wrong,” she said. “It was just that I had been arrested. I was never told what for, and I guess that just adds to the feeling that a lot of this is idle gossip, make believe. They don't even know, whoever the 'they' are. I don't think they were clear on what it was I was being arrested for.”

She has not been arrested.

She has not been charged.

She has not been led out of the building in cuffs.

“There has never been any indication-and I brought you copies of some of the letters we've received from the grantors-at no time in any of the grants was there any allegation of embezzlement of funds, or any deliberate criminal activity,” Dr. Smith said.

“I don't know why,” Dr. Smith adds later in the interview regarding the persistent rumors, “people deliberately lie…”

Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors member, and HOPE board member and treasurer, Howard Simpson has heard the rumors that have been circulating for months.

“Oh, yeah, oh, yeah,” he told The Herald on Monday.

Where are they coming from?

“Just people want to down somebody else that's trying to do something. That's the way rumors are, you know,” Simpson said. “They'll tell them on me, they'll tell them on you, they'll tell them on anybody else, just something to start some problem for somebody…People are always ready to complain about what somebody else is doing but they never want to do it theirselves. Just like the board of supervisors, people want to complain about something all the time but they'll turn around and tell you 'I wouldn't have your job. You couldn't give it to me.'”

As for the rumors, Simpson said, “To my knowledge, I know of nothing anybody's done wrong. If anything's been done wrong I don't know about it.”

Audits, he said, confirm the absence of any criminal financial wrongdoing at HOPE Community Services.

“When we had our audit a couple of months ago (the auditor) came to our board meeting and I asked him in the board meeting if anything, if he found where any money had been misplaced or mishandled or anything and with anybody and he said 'No, I see nothing that anybody did wrong. The only thing it is is that the HOPE Community Services is broke,” Simpson said. “I asked him right blank on if he saw where anybody had misplaced any money or mishandled money and he said No, that he didn't see anything (but) that the HOPE Community Services didn't have any money.”

A March 21, 2013 letter from the certified public accountants who performed the most recent annual audit, for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2012, contains no mention or allegation or hint of any criminal wrongdoing

Contacted by The Herald on Monday, Prince Edward County Commonwealth's Attorney James R. Ennis said, “I really can't comment because I haven't listened to the rumors. I heard them but unless and until some law enforcement agency comes in here and says 'We're looking into this and we want you to review our findings and tell us if you think a crime's been committed' then I'm really not involved in it until it gets to that stage.”

And nobody has brought him anything. No law enforcement contact at all. Nothing but rumors.

“Nothing,” Ennis said. “Until I see some evidence, it's just a rumor.”

Farmville Police Chief Doug Mooney has also heard the same rumors.

But that's all they are.

“We're not working any cases on her or the HOPE community center,” Chief Mooney said Monday. “All I know is what you've been hearing on the street too.”

How does Dr. Smith feel knowing such rumors exist and have been circulating on the streets for months?

“I am personally, because you know I am a minister, and I believe passionately in scripture, the truth of scripture and scripture says a liar will not even tarry in sight. I know I'm going to be all right,” she answers. “It's painful but when you know that you haven't done anything wrong you keep (going). I haven't missed a beat. I still do what I have to do.

“But inside, I'm more concerned,” she continues, “about the individuals who are deliberately lying than I am for me. I will survive all of this. This is nothing. When we look back over our lives, individually, we see some tough times we come through. All of us. And we survive, and so that's true of me. This has been a very disappointing time but I think also it strengthened me.”

Dr. Smith said she was told several years ago by an employee in a state agency that has provided grants to HOPE, that “your biggest problem is you're too compassionate. And I bristled because I felt, as a social worker, a minister, a community activist, that I'm supposed to be compassionate. Now, I begin to understand better what he was saying because sometimes you have to have a hard, corporate persona…and I was always making decisions based on the individual client needs and employee needs…”

Indeed, Dr. Smith provides The Herald with a document dated May 22, 2013 which details payments she had made for the agency from her personal financial resources.

Specifically, a $5,000 loan against her own car made on May 10, 2012 to help HOPE Community Services meet its payroll.

The list contains 10 other items Dr. Smith paid for with her own money, on behalf of the agency, including a $940 fuel bill for the central office, two electric bills, $300 for client housing, stationary and janitorial supplies.

The document also states that Dr. Smith did not receive a paycheck ($1,408) on April 26, 2012 because there was not enough money in the payroll account to pay her as well as the other employees.

“And that wasn't the first time,” she adds, regarding missing out on her pay. “Back in 2004 I went three months without a paycheck because the agency had no fundraising going on…There were times when I didn't get paid.”

Being told she has too much compassion made her question, she said, “Okay, God, why do you have me in this arena when I am doing what I think is work that's pleasing to God? He said look out for the homeless, the widows and those in prison. That's been my life's work. I've done it at the federal level, the state level, and the local level. Because believe it or not I worked 17 years for the federal government (at the headquarters office of the Social Security Administration and retired as National Director of Women's Affairs). I have seen it all…(but) I've never compromised my Christian principles and I was able to survive and even be promoted…This is the first time I've had my compassion, my sensitivity corrupted. And I can't figure out a better way to say it. It's like all of my good efforts were just thrown up in my face.”

HOPE's financial challenges, according to Dr. Smith, are not new.

“This did not just happen. When I went to HOPE, it was C-PAC then, in 2002, they-meaning federal and state-were planning to close the agency down and I was able, through a lot of prayer and sacrifice and creative fundraising, to hold it together. So I really held the agency together for about eight years,” Dr. Smith points out.

What has caused the financial difficulties?

“I really feel that the biggest cause of HOPE's financial decay was the lack of active fundraising on the part of the board (of directors). The way the agency is set up, there's a governing board. There are supposed to be three representatives from each of the counties we serve. One of those three has to be a member of the board of supervisors. The board of directors has fiduciary responsibility for the agency,” she said. “In the almost 11 years I've been with the agency there have only been two instances where a board member initiated a fundraising activity, and in both of those instances there was little or no board participation, among other board members.”

Dr. Smith calls Simpson “the most proactive board member” during her 11 years, saying he “fully understands and appreciates what HOPE is trying to do.”

HOPE is doing crisis intervention now-getting light bills paid for families in need. Getting lights turned back on that have been turned off. Helping individuals get their rent paid. People who have been released from prison don't have any place to go and HOPE helps them find a safe place until family or friends can get to them.

The Weatherization program is gone. Head Start is gone.

There is a letter from Head Start “and it lists a number of examples of fiscal deficiencies,” she acknowledged. “Head Start's main complaint was money from Head Start was used in other grants. That's a no-no…They knew it was used (that way). When they did the audit they could see. It wasn't that money was taken and put in somebody's pocket…with deliberate criminal action. But that was the reason and they cite that as why they closed the Head Start grant.”

<!– 1upcrlf2 –>Money from Head Start was being used to pay for other services for HOPE Community Services clients.

“Head Start grant money would come regularly in large quantities and it would come in advance. Head Start's year started in January so every month or so throughout the year…a draw down…was submitted and based on the listing of what the draw down was for we would be sent the money,” she explained.

“Even when the Head Start program sent us the letter saying they were closing the program they didn't say for embezzlement or mismanagement,” she notes.

“The Weatherization program worked differently. In order to get Weatherization funds you had to put up all the money for the project first. And the state has a 45-day repayment agreement, reimbursement agreement. Rarely did it come within 45 days. Often if would be 50 to 60 days. As a matter of fact, once we started having problems with Weatherization and they cut off all funding, they still owed us money for the grant year because the Weatherization grant year ends September 30. So our problems with them surfaced mid-September. The reimbursement had already been submitted for work done prior to that. They should have given us that money. They did not…for jobs that had been done.”

Intervention, she said, by Simpson and Prince Edward County Administrator Wade Bartlett appeared to draw a state promise to release the money.

But, she said, the money never came.

“We had to lay off employees, the entire Weatherization crew was laid off. Of course Head Start was taken over by a federal contractor. Unfortunately, both of those grants left the agency with bills, and then it becomes just a mumble-jumble (from the state and federal level) about how the money's going to get paid, depending upon who you talked to. You know 'Send us the invoices and we'll make sure you get it.' Well, that's been going on for months.”

At both the state and federal level.

“We were already in deep water and that just aggravated it more because it made all of our creditors feel that we were giving them the runaround and I think between the creditors not understanding how the process worked, they also felt, I'm sure one or two of them said among themselves, 'Somebody has embezzled some money because I haven't gotten my money.' And the more you tried to explain it the more ridiculous it sounds and it doesn't sound credible. So I think that's how that rumor got out on the street, in addition to people just making loose comments.”

Dr. Smith, who said she has “gotten so much support from the professional community” during this time of difficulty because of the rumors, serves at the will and discretion of HOPE's board of directors.

Asked about her future with the agency, Dr. Smith answers, “I'm old enough to go home and sit in a rocking chair. Somehow, that doesn't fit me. I think I will be there for a while longer.”

She believes she will continue serving as executive director until she decides she wants to leave and Dr. Smith says, without hesitation, “I am very proud of my record with HOPE.”

But, she stresses, whether at HOPE or with her church and her other affiliations, the work she has spent her life performing will continue.

“Really, my work is not just for HOPE, it's for the area…I'm going to do this whether I do it at HOPE or not,” she says, strength in her voice.

“So when you ask how much longer are you going to be at HOPE,” she reflects, “that's a good question. But if you were to ask me how much longer are you going to be in this field, I'm going to tell you 'till the day I die.'”