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Local mental health advocates opened the Our Turn self-help center on Mount Pleasant Street NW with a noble goal: to have former consumers of mental health services serve the mentally ill and the homeless. Managed by Fleming Rice, a formerly homeless man, Our Turn welcomed the city’s down-and-out and provided services ranging from therapy groups to laundry machines. The D.C. government thought enough of the program to support it with annual grants of $180,000.

A pair of recently released reports, however, suggest that the city didn’t spend its grants wisely.

A review conducted by the city’s Commission on Mental Health Services on the self-help center and the affiliated Our Turn advocacy services turned up shoddy bookkeeping and faulted the Department of Human Services (DHS) and Woodley House, an umbrella organization responsible for monitoring Our Turn, for lax oversight. The District’s Inspector General (IG) followed up with an audit of Our Turn’s contracts, confirming record-keeping deficiencies and detailing questionable expenditures.

The commission’s report features some documentation on another alleged scourge at Our Turn: drug dealing. A Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) affidavit used to obtain a search warrant at the center confirms that the FBI received information from a confidential informant describing “an active crack-cocaine trafficking operation” located at the Our Turn address (see “Whose Turn?” 8/5/97).

According to the affidavit, police officers watched the informant go to the rear of Our Turn, where he was met by a man who then entered Our Turn and emerged with a rock of crack cocaine in exchange for government cash. The affidavit touts the informant as a source who “provided information that has led to over nine search warrants with the recovery of large amounts of narcotics, money, and numerous weapons.” The informant “never provided information that has been known to be false,” according to the affidavit.

The sting operation prompted an April 1997 MPD drug raid of the facility, which produced no evidence of drug dealing and no arrests. Aside from the affidavit, the commission’s report contains little further exploration of the drug allegations—serious charges for a place that uses tax dollars to assist recovering addicts. The report documents Rice’s denial of those accusations and the similar denials of Our Turn employees and clients.

Our Turn officials will have more difficulty rebutting the various allegations of budgetary mismanagement outlined in the reports.

The IG identified $53,380 in invalid costs resulting from the organization’s failure to maintain specified staffing levels. The audit also tallied $174,924 in “questioned” costs—money allegedly spent on services that Our Turn was unable to prove it had actually provided.

“The contractor did not comply with all contract terms, and the [Commission] and DHS did not follow procurement and contracting regulations,” the IG report concludes.

In addition to allowing dubious expenditures, Our Turn’s contracting and payment procedures did not meet city requirements. According to the IG, the center did not submit required reports or meet promised staffing levels. For their part, the commission and DHS failed to adequately watch over the contract. Files lapsed and regulations were ignored. For an entire month in 1996, Our Turn was allowed to operate without a contract.

The commission had also asked the IG to determine whether Our Turn had overbilled the city or misspent government funds. The IG, however, couldn’t comply with that request because the relevant records simply did not exist. “We could not determine the costs incurred because the contractor did not maintain adequate cost accounting records,” the IG report states.

The commission’s report was completed in October of last year, but the commission delayed its release to Washington City Paper until this week, after the IG audit was concluded. City Paper procured both reports under the Freedom of Information Act.

The reports do not indicate whether Woodley House will be required to reimburse the city for some of the questionable money spent by Our Turn, whose status as a city contractor is uncertain. Woodley House director Edith Maeda said the organization is shaping a response but declined to go into detail. “I know it’s your job, but we have to deal with 106 people,” Maeda said, explaining that she had an emergency to deal with. Rice was not prepared to comment on the allegations: “I don’t know. I don’t get into that. I’m just a peon. They don’t give me the reports.”CP