Austin fired NEON’s fiscal officer after he started questioning him about Fayne’s fake Glenville Market development invoices

CLEVELAND, OH – The same details about Arthur Fayne’s fake development invoices found in his federal indictment for gambling away money earmarked for the health care of low-income Americans are also referenced in an April 23, 2020 8th District Court of Appeals ruling affirming a verdict in the favor of Northeast Ohio Neighborhood Health Service’ (NEON) former chief fiscal officer, James O’Donnell.   If the members of the volunteer board Rev. Rodney Thomas leads as president have not read O’Donnell’s litigation they should.

The agency’s $511,000 a year chief executive officer, Willie Austin, has problems.  So do the individual board members with fiduciary duties O’Donnell’s successful litigation demonstrates they failed to discharge.  The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) look at NEON now that Fayne’s under indictment can’t be over.  All of the “moving parties” have not yet been brought to justice.

Fayne now joins Jaqueline Middleton, Claire Freeman, Eric Ivey and other “Gucci wearing” bureaucratic players with high rolling lifestyles off government funds.  The house in the gated part of Aurora, the Porsche’s, the designer clothing and expensive gambling off tightly-monitored federal dollars is the Fayne-like signature behind all the other indictments and convictions.  Federal grant management laws are so easy to read and follow the only way anyone goes to jail is they don’t read and obey them.

Mandatory technical support is wrapped into the language of all grant agreement terms and conditions.  Anyone overseeing and spending federal dollars just has to ask in writing.  The written request becomes a part of your never-ended federal records paper trail.   All “official” communications with and between government officials are in writing.  If a request for technical support doesn’t exist in writing it doesn’t exist.

The 2018 Form 990 Willie Austin submitted to the IRS shows him earning $511,000 that year. NEON’s budget is approximately $24 million. My budget in East Cleveland as mayor was $27 million my first year for $40,000 in wages. Austin manages 300 employees. I had 283. Mayor Frank Jackson’s $155,000 a year in wages gets him the responsibility of 6000 employees and an overall budget he controls of $2.5 billion. Ohio’s governor earns roughly the same as Jackson. No government non-profit funded agency director, no campus university president, should earn more than the mayor or a governor. They don’t have the same level of responsibility. $511,000 a year and he’s helping someone steal money that was earmarked to keep poor people healthy; and not greedy, vain bureaucrats stylish. How many patients were not served and died because Austin was aiding Arthur Fayne in misdirecting health care money for gambling? This is another example of Mayor Frank Jackson’s failure to oversee entities receiving city dollars.

In NEON’s case its board under Thomas’ leadership was warned on more than one occasion about problems in its audits and Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) site visits.  The board’s oversight was questioned by HRSA during a site visit and O’Donnell’s case reveals it angered Thomas.  A board president who read HRSA’s “Site Visit Protocol” that’s free and online would have been prepared instead of angry.

O’Donnell sued Winston and the board after the 18 year chief fiscal officer was fired without notice on June 9, 2017; and escorted out by a security guard.  Austin accused O’Donnell of insubordination for questioning his support of Fayne’s fake invoices.

O’Donnell had accused Winston and Thomas of manipulating information the other board members were receiving.  Thomas backed Winston’s firing of O’Donnell.  The next three paragraphs are lifted directly from the 8th District Court of Appeals ruling that affirmed O’Donnell’s victory over Winston, Thomas and the board for his termination.

On May 24, 2016, O’Donnell sent an email to Austin regarding the status of the financial audit. O’Donnell advised Austin that the auditors would not be presenting at NEON’s June board meeting and wanted to meet with Arthur Fayne to discuss how costs were being assigned to NEON projects. Fayne’s company, Business Development Concepts (“BDC”), was the managing agent for CIS and served as the intermediary between NEON and CIS with respect to the projects. The auditors had requested additional documentation regarding funds being paid to BDC to determine whether the expenditures should be properly capitalized or expensed. Austin testified that he and the board chairman had recently met with the auditors and that the senior audit partner had informed them, at that time, that the auditors had all of the information they needed to close the audit. Austin responded: “These continued delays are unacceptable, as the requests  seem unending; one leading to another. The auditors have indicated to me and the Board Chair that they had the information needed to close out. That is what they
need to do.” 

In a May 25, 2016 email to Austin, O’Donnell stated: I am pretty confident you misinterpreted what would happen subsequent to your meeting with [the auditors]. You may have communicated “what” was transpiring; but they still needed to test the “transactions” of what was transpiring to confirm your explanations. That’s what auditing is! It is notable to see that the same transactions requested from Arthur, yielded no actual proof that the “payments” were being made to his subcontractors, only [i]nvoices, that quite frankly any eighth grade could recreate on a printer! However, in his defense, I already chastised the Auditor’s [sic] for not being more “specific” on what they needed, (i.e. cancelled checks or bank statements showing the wires), from him. However, with him charging us for “Financial Services,” they may have assumed what an auditor required, should be known by him?  Let me speak frankly, when you divert a million dollars a year, to an  unproven entity to act on your behalf[,] there is going to be heightened scrutiny. You are smart enough to understand this. We are in the second year of million dollar losses, that nonprofit Board members may not fully comprehend? A Board’s responsibility of “Duty of Care,” will be questioned by outside reviewers. I am speculating that the Plante & Moran Technical Reviewers came back to Mark and said just meet with BDC, since they failed to provide proof that these invoices are actually being paid. I think it is a simple solution that we should comply with. The alternative might be to see proof of payments on a sample of items? So which might you prefer? I can go back to them with your preference. Or you can speak directly to them? Let me know? (Emphasis sic.)

The following day, Austin responded to O’Donnell’s email, copying Fayne, as follows: Be very careful about the way you communicate with me, especially questioning my intelligence and/or ability to understand something you were not present to hear, question or response [sic]. Insolence seems to be something you hold in high regard. However[,] you are not going to address me any way you like without there being consequences. My concern about this whole process is the lack of specificity and the amount of time already expended, as though a fishing expedition is being conducted in order to discover more questions to ask. In all my years with this organization, I am not aware of one instance where a contractor or vendor of any kind was asked to produce proof of payment for invoices submitted of any amount. As insulting as it may be to Arthur Fayne, I will present this latest request to him and see whether this eighth grader is willing to meet or provide proof of payment on some “sample of items.” At any rate, you can advise the audit firm that I expect a draft to send to board members next week.

O’Donnell’s references to the millions being lost annually by NEON concerns Glenville Councilman Kevin Conwell.  It’s the only real health provider for the city’s neighborhoods since the late Mayor Anthony Celebreeze in 1958 agreed to turn Cleveland’s free municipal hospital into a regional MetroHealth.

Arthur Fayne once worked for the late Councilwoman Fannie Lewis’ Hough Area Development Corporation. The agency had audit issues. Mayor Michael R. White at that time chose not to fund it. One of the board’s members went to jail. Fayne had to “re-find” himself.

Cleveland employers once benefited from hiring city residents who had free health care pursuant to R.C. 749.01 and the Hill Burton Act of 1946.  $50 a year on a $50,000 home covered the cost.

MetroHealth is building hospitals in the suburbs that should have been built in Cleveland.  Cleveland Clinic is destroying hospitals in East Cleveland and others parts of Cuyahoga County; and building new ones in Saudi Arabia and places like Dubai.  Conwell sees the corruption at NEON as threatening to the health of the city’s residents.

In his litigation against Winston and the board, O’Donnell identified a problem that affects Cleveland and Cuyahoga county’s councils.  The 8th District Court of Appeals as background reviewed how O’Donnell had “previously expressed concerns regarding NEON’s involvement in these projects because they were “outside the line of the FQHC business” for which NEON received federal funding.”

The Court reviewed NEON testimony from Austin who “claimed that O’Donnell lacked sufficient information regarding the projects to be asking questions about them.   Austin testified that he wrote a letter to “the law firm that is hired by the federal government to represent FQHCs” and was told it did not matter what projects the company pursued so long as it was “not using federal dollars” for the projects. NEON’s involvement in these projects was approved by its board of trustees.”

O’Donnell wanted to address the board, directly.  Thomas didn’t want it to happen.

What the testimony reveals is that Thomas was “running the board” with Winston instead of simply “presiding over the meetings.”  It’s a role outside the authority of a board president that seen in the light of Fayne’s indictment makes the ex-pastor of St. James AME an oversized player in Fayne’s fake billing scandal.  The fact that NEON’s board approved unlawful transactions doesn’t make the transaction legal.  Winston’s argument was criminally-ignorant.

James was removed from St. James AME in 2001 after revelations about his drunken domestic violence assault on his former wife in front of their two adopted sons appeared on the front page of Cleveland Life when I edited the 50,000 circulation weekly newspaper.  The church’s board stood with him, at first, until other revelations about his “management” surfaced during an investigation of its records.  He’s still addressing problems with anger instead of reason.  [NOTE: I was raised in the AME church in East Saint Louis, Illinois under Rev. William Wharton.  Youth speaker.  Altar boy.  My sister, cousin and late uncle were and are AME ministers.]

What the board “missed” by not hearing from O’Donnell was the information in his litigation that appears to have been the source of the FBI’s investigation.  As a Certified Public Accountant O’Donnell would have the same 18 U.S.C. 4, Misprision of felony, duties as every other person with knowledge of felony crimes, to report them.

Winston’s termination of O’Donnell, with Thomas and the board’s backing, for reporting Fayne’s fake invoices creates the illusion they each had a non-disclosed self interest in keeping the contractor and dumping the accountant who caught him stealing.  It makes them a part of a conspiracy.

The board should have been questioning Fayne, Winston and Thomas and listening to O’Donnell.  Winston’s control of the board made him its only “reportable” employee. The board’s composition doesn’t even comply with the federal law requirement that 51 percent of its members be low-income patients.

It’s publicly-known that “individual” members of Cleveland city council dumped the portions of the block grant dollars they’ve been controlling into the project; so federal funds were involved there and from the perspective that NEON is a federally-granted funded entity with little other outside revenue according to the Form 990 filed with the Internal Revenue Service.

What shows up in county records about tax dollars going to NEON or Fayne for the Glenville Market doesn’t show up on city council’s website.  While Cleveland city council members have directed federal block grant dollars to the Glenville Market’s renovation, there’s no legislative record to confirm it.

Eric Jonathan Brewer

Cleveland's most influential journalist and East Cleveland's most successful mayor is an East Saint Louis, Illinois native whose father led the city's petition drive in 1969 to elect the first black mayor in 1971. Eric is an old-school investigative reporter whose 40-year body of editorial work has been demonstrably effective. No local journalist is feared or respected more.

Trained in newspaper publishing by the legendary Call & Post Publisher William Otis Walker in 1978 when it was the nation's 5th largest Black-owned publication, Eric has published and edited 13 local, regional and statewide publications across Ohio. Adding to his publishing and reporting resume is Eric's career in government. Eric served as the city's highest paid part-time Special Assistant to ex-Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White. He served as Chief of Staff to ex-East Cleveland Mayor Emmanuel Onunwor; and Chief of Communications to the late George James in his capacity as the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority's first Black executive director. Eric was appointed to serve as a member of the state's Financial Planning & Supervision Commission to guide the East Cleveland school district out of fiscal emergency and $20 million deficit. Former U.S. HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson told Eric in his D.C. office he was the only mayor in the nation simultaneously-managing a municipal block grant program. Eric wrote the city's $2.2 million Neighborhood Stabilization Program grant application. A HUD Inspector General audit of his management of the block grant program resulted in "zero" audit findings.

As a newspaper publisher, Eric has used his insider's detailed knowledge of government and his publications to lead the FBI and state prosecutors to investigations that resulted in criminal prosecutions of well-known elected officials in Ohio; and have helped realign Cleveland's political landscape with the defeat of candidates and issues he's exposed. Eric's stories led to the indictments of the late Governor George Voinovich's brother, Paul Voinovich of the V Group, and four associates. He asked the FBI to investigate the mayor he'd served as chief of staff for public corruption; and testified in three federal trials for the prosecution. He forced former Cuyahoga County Coroner Dr. Elizabeth Balraj to admit her investigations of police killings were fraudulent; and to issue notices to local police that her investigators would control police killing investigations. Eric's current work has resulted in Cuyahoga County Judge John Russo accepting the criminal complaint he guided an activist to file against 24 civil rights-violating police officers in the city he once led for operating without valid peace officer credentials. USA Today reporters picked up on Eric's police credentials reporting from his social media page and made it national.

Eric is the author of of his first book, "Fight Police License Plate Spying," which examines the FBI and local police misuse of the National Crime Information Center criminal records history database. An accomplished trumpet player and singer whose friendship with Duke Fakir of the Four Tops resulted in his singing the show's closing song, "Can't Help Myself": Curtis Sliwa of New York's Guardian Angels counts Eric among his founding chapter leaders from the early 1980's role as an Ohio organizer of over 300 volunteer crime fighters in Cleveland, Columbus and Youngstown, Ohio. For his work as a young man Eric was recognized by Cleveland's Urban League as it's 1983 Young Man of the Year.

Known in Cleveland for his encyclopedic knowledge of government and history, and intimately-connected with the region's players, every local major media outlet in Cleveland has picked up on one of Eric's stories since 1979. There is no mainstream newspaper, television or radio outlet in Cleveland that does not include an interview with Eric Jonathan Brewer in its archives over the past 40 years.

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