by Susan LaFollette Arnold, DCSD parent
Published Denver Post Your Hub
October 10, 2013
When I spoke with Cinamon Watson, interim director of the Douglas County Educational Foundation (DCEF) on September 30, she answered a few questions and dodged most, and then shared a closing comment with me: “I’m happy to provide these documents to you to allay your fears and concerns.” Despite her vow to get back to me within a week, my questions are still unanswered – even simple ones like who sits on the foundation board, what is your conflict of interest policy, how is check signing authority managed by the foundation, and what is the foundation’s annual budget?
Watson’s assertion that the foundation is happy to be transparent is smoke and mirrors. The foundation, according to Watson, “got out of the habit of doing annual reports.” The board secretary and treasurer does not know about major outlays of foundation funds. The board has accepted donations earmarked for activities that fail to adhere to the objectives of the foundation, with many of these donations coming from special interest groups outside of the district with deep political ties. There is so much subterfuge here, it is hard to know where to start, but here are four things that the DCEF does not want you to know.
- Allison Therwhanger, secretary and treasurer of the DCEF board, did not know that $50,000 of foundation funds were approved by the board to pay former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett for a review of the district’s strategic plan, preparation of a white paper, and a speech that educational leaders of Douglas County School District (DCSD) were not invited to hear. Watson was not sure about the date that the foundation accepted funds earmarked for Bennett, although she promised to share this information and did not. She is certain that Therwhanger was not at the meeting where the board voted to hire Bennett, and Watson stated that Therwhanger would not have seen the minutes documenting that the vote occurred if she was not at the meeting. When I asked for clarification on why the secretary and treasurer would not have seen the minutes even if she missed the meeting, Watson corrected her statement and said that absent board members receive meeting minutes. If board officers do not know about major outlays of cash, then something is amiss at this 501(c)(3) organization. Just who is running the DCEF if the board officers are not?
- Bennett’s $50,000 windfall from the district is as smelly as it seems. According to Watson, the hiring of Bennett fulfills all of the objectives of the DCEF’s mission and charter (see below), even though only a select group of people within DCSD interacted with him, and Bennett now promotes the DCSD white paper on his website (right below ads for Bill Bennett mugs and hats), with no mention anywhere that the paper was paid for with DCEF funds. Watson insisted that allowing funds that paid for Bennett to come from an unnamed family donor was in no way politically motivated despite Bennett’s well-documented career of working as a political operative. You decide for yourself.
Douglas County Educational Foundation (DCEF) was created in June of 1990 to develop private resources to enrich education within Douglas County schools for the fulfillment of lifelong learning experiences of our students, citizens and community. The Foundation will achieve this mission by engaging the community and directing support where appropriate toward the following objectives:
- facilitate learner development through enhanced educational activities for all ages within the community;
- enrich individual life experience by promoting cultural activities in the arts and humanities;
- support the professional growth of teaching by encouraging new and creative ideas for delivering education; and
- promote school and community partnerships by encouraging individuals and organizations to share resources.
- When asked what the current annual budget is for the foundation, Watson refused to provide any numbers. Watson agreed to pull the specifics of the current budget for me; however, the most current budget information she was willing to share was Form 990 (IRS form for tax-exempt organizations) for 2011. In response to my request about support received by the foundation, Watson said: “As you know, the funds raised in/by the foundation are private funds (not taxpayer funds). Neither are required to be disclosed, other than to the extent required by IRS.” She is correct. But at some point that 990 form is going to provide the name of Bill Bennett’s sugar daddy and the sugar daddy knows that. Why the secrecy about the foundation budget? Is there fire where there is smoke?
- The Starboard Group, a right wing political consulting firm, was hired by the DCEF through a noncompetitive decision-making process. Watson dodged questions about whether she had worked with Starboard on political events prior to her employment with DCSD, and would not provide information on how much Starboard was paid to run two events for the foundation. Perhaps that is also why Watson failed to provide me with the foundation’s conflict of interest policy as promised; a conflict of interest cannot be proven if you hide the policy from the public, correct? Speculation is that Watson’s refusal to disclose Starboard’s fees is because Starboard made a commission off these events – skimming a generous cut of the funds that were raised for the foundation as their payment, which could be an amount that far exceeds what an event management company should have been paid for its services. Amy Sherman, DCEF board chair, also appears to have ties to Starboard, but Watson declined to comment on this and Sherman did not return my phone call.
Toward the end of my conversation with Watson when I pointed out the huge gaps in available information, Watson asserted: “I’m not trying to hide anything.” Really? The questions presented below are the ones I gave to Watson the day after my meeting with her so that she had a reminder of the information promised. Her follow-up email to me answered none of these questions. So to Ms. Watson and the DCEF board I say, you are trying to hide just about everything about the foundation from the citizens of Douglas County who have been loyal supporters and raised millions for your organization. If the DCEF has not become the political slush fund that many of us now think that it is, then do what you say you are going to do: be transparent, be honest, and stop hiding.
Questions Unanswered by Cinamon Watson and the DCEF:
- Who besides Bill Bennett has been paid consulting fees through the foundation for the last three years? How much were they paid?
- What is the donor’s name who earmarked funds for Bill Bennett’s work with the district? When did they contact the foundation about their desire to earmark a donation for Bennett’s consulting relationship? When was Bennett hired?
- Could you confirm that Rick Hess’ consulting fees were paid through the district by funds provided by the Daniels Fund and the date he was hired by the district?
- What were the total fees paid to the Starboard Group for the two events you mentioned that they handled – a golf tournament and luncheon?
- What is Amy Sherman’s relationship with the Starboard Group given her role as president of the Northwest Douglas County EDC?
- What donors have contributed $5,000+ over the last three years to the foundation?
- What is the current budget for the foundation and what are the main lines items within it? What percentage of the foundation budget is being used for consultants in 2013 and for the years when an annual report is not available?
- What are the foundation’s policies and procedures related to check signing authority?
- What is the conflict of interest policy for the foundation?
- Will the board agree to make the minutes of their meetings public? If so, we’d like to request copies for the last three years.
- Could you provide a current roster of foundation board members?