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Shawn Vestal: Don’t let the push for accountability end with the Guardians

The Trent Resource and Assistance Center on Trent Avenue is seen on Sept. 1. The Salvation Army will take over the shelter’s operations at the start of next month.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

The accountability mayor has a long way to go to be even minimally accountable in the Guardians Foundation debacle.

The City Council approved an emergency measure Thursday to allow the city to end its contract with the Guardians – 17 days after it became public that an employee of the foundation had admitted embezzling funds – and hire the Salvation Army to take over operations at the Trent and Cannon Street shelters.

City Administrator Johnnie Perkins told the council that following the news of the embezzlement allegations, he and city staff took a closer look at the books and found “irregularities” and a lack of internal controls that – above and beyond the embezzlement – meant that the Guardians were in violation of their contract.

The decision was the right one, if made bafflingly late.

What remains murky is a clearer, more definitive timeline of when the mayor knew about the embezzlement allegations and what she did before this knowledge became public; how her administration managed to overlook these irregularities for months while handing over taxpayer dollars to the Guardians to run two shelters and a winter warming center; and why she has been so very quiet about this debacle, when in the past – on matters involving her political opponents, say – she has spoken up loud and clear about perceived ethical problems in the contracting process.

“Where is the accountability?” Councilman Zack Zappone asked during the meeting.

We do not have a good answer to that simple question.

And it’s not very clear whether the twin investigations into the embezzlement – an internal audit and a belated Spokane Police Department probe – will shine any light on it, either.

Zappone was not the only council member to note the absence of a stronger public statement from the mayor as well as the long time it took to reach Thursday’s vote.

After all, the head of the Guardians Foundation, Mike Shaw, learned of the possible embezzlement of hundreds of thousands of dollars in May, he’s said in past interviews. KREM reported that he described this as “solid evidence of potential fraud.” He says he reported it to no one for months on end because he was focused on getting the Trent shelter up and running.

The employee alleged to have committed the embezzlement left Shaw a letter Aug. 11, confessing to the embezzlement. She remained on the job until Sept. 23.

Shaw waited to report it to the police Sept. 29, via a call to Crime Check. That call somehow did not result in a Spokane Police Department investigation – which only began after the news became public.

In the time between Shaw receiving the letter confessing the embezzlement, and his call to Crime Check, the Guardians began operating the mayor’s Trent shelter.

Perkins has said he learned about the allegations shortly after the Crime Check call, after which he alerted the mayor, who ordered the internal audit.

This one came without a news release. It was only after word leaked to Councilwoman Karen Stratton, who reached out to Perkins on Oct. 7, that he began informing other council members. Stratton and Councilwoman Lori Kinnear then called publicly for a criminal investigation Oct. 10.

In the more than two weeks since, Perkins told the council, he and city staffers examined the Guardian contracts and records and found problems that he referred to in the vaguest of terms – irregularities, a lack of internal controls, some “administerial” issues.

He did not specify what these were, but they were above and beyond the alleged theft. Zappone pointedly asked why it took so long to discover these problems, given how long the city has been paying the Guardians – and given the fact that people have questioned other expenses by the organization, such as the seemingly steep cost billed by the Guardians for overseeing the convention center debacle.

Perkins didn’t have much of an answer, other than to say the city continues to learn a lot about what was going on and the staff is doing a swell job. He enthusiastically and repeatedly praised the staff, but the problem does not lie not with the poor, overburdened employees of the short-staffed city.

It’s about accountability up top. The city made deals with the Guardians worth $6.6 million (for Trent) and $1.9 million (for Cannon Street), and threw $136,000 at them to run the convention center warming shelter for two weeks, which left some folks scratching their heads.

Given how closely the mayor’s homelessness program, such as it is, has been yoked to the Guardians, it is crucial the public understands as much as possible about what she knew and what she did, back when the embarrassment was still under wraps.

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