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In 2006, the North Philly Aztecs were having a tough year. The much-beloved youth football team had, against all odds, won Pop Warner Jr. Pee Wee Super Bowl the year before. Even so, they didn’t have enough money for uniforms and equipment.
And then there was the morbid state of their home field, a stretch of Hunting Park that had become a muddy swamp, forcing them to practice and play their games elsewhere.
Into this somber situation stepped Jerome Whyatt Mondesire, longtime president of the local and state chapters of the NAACP, and a well-known figure in Philadelphia politics.
Mondesire applied to a state grant agency for $100,000 to restore the kids’ field, promising to drain the field, install outdoor lighting, erect bleachers and more.
The grant, as Mondesire proposed it, would be administered by the Next Generation CDC, a nonprofit organization that he’d founded in 1999 and of which he was president.
The $100,000 would “permit [Next Generation CDC] to expand their outreach to even more deserving young people,” the grant application said.
The grant was awarded; two years later, Mondesire reported that the work had been completed.
Far from being finished, there is evidence that suggests it never started. Public officials and individuals familiar with the park and with the Aztecs say they never heard of, saw or knew of the purported renovation project.
The youth team did indeed get a restored playing field: last year, the ribbon was cut on the renewed field after a two-year, multi-million dollar rehab of the park by the Fairmount Park Conservancy and assisted with donations from Eagles’ Quarterback Michael Vick, for whom the field is now named.
But that project had nothing to do with Mondesire, the Next Generation CDC, or the NAACP and didn’t begin until in 2011—three years after Mondesire claimed to have finished essentially the same work.
No work authorized
Those knowledgeable about the park’s history say that if the playing field was restored prior to the recent project, they have never seen any evidence.
The city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, which must approve, authorize, and oversee all work that takes place in city parks, said in an email that it had never heard of nor authorized Mondesire’s proposed restoration and has no records indicating any such work was performed during the time in question, according to First Deputy Director of Parks and Facilities Mark Focht.
Kathryn Ott Lovell, executive director of the Fairmount Park Conservatory, which coordinated the effort to restore the field as part of a master plan for Hunting Park, said that while she couldn’t speak to the period that preceded her organization’s work, the field was still in disrepair and without bleachers or lighting when her group began planning its restoration in 2009, the year after Mondesire listed the project as completed.
And Wayne Allen, known ubiquitously as “Coach Wiz,” who has lead the Aztecs for 21 years, said in a telephone interview that this was the first he’d heard of any such effort by Mondesire or the Next Generation CDC and that he does not believe such work ever took place.
“I would have loved for [Mondesire] to have done it,” said Allen. But prior the recent renovation of the field “no one came” to work on the field. “Nope. Nothing. There were no bleachers, no anything.”
“I wish,” he added.
The grant was just one of dozens that were awarded to the Next Generation CDC over the years by the Department of Community and Economic Development, a state agency that once served to funnel money to politicians’ pet projects (often referred to as Walking Around Money, or WAMs). Shortly after taking office, Gov. Corbett sharply curtailed the issuing of DCED grants.
At least eight of these grants, totaling $170,000, were issued to the Next Generation CDC after 2005, the last year for which it filed the 990 forms the Internal Revenue Service requires nonprofits to file.
UPDATED 6/12/2014: Following the publication of this article, Mondesire responded to AxisPhilly’s report. In a letter he acknowledged that the field hadn’t been restored, but said the funds were used instead “to support our anti-violence and scholarship programs” and that “the funding adjustment was approved.” Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokesperson for DCED, said in a statement to AxisPhilly that “No amendment for adjustment of funds was requested of or received by DCED.”
Failure to file
The fact that the Next Generation CDC was receiving any money, let alone taxpayer funds, without filing could put it in violation of the law, say experts with whom AxisPhilly spoke.
“I am not aware of any situation in which you as a nonprofit can receive grants and then not report it,” says Gary C. Johnson, an expert on fraud and forensic accounting and a former F.B.I. officer.
The apparent lack of federal tax reports “certainly raises some red flags,” agreed Kelly Richmond Pope, a Professor of Accountancy at DePaul University and an expert in white-collar crime.
The last form 990 from the Next Generation CDC reported by the IRS was filed in 2006 for the fiscal year 2005; a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of State said the nonprofit’s last filings with the state were also received in 2006.
But there appears to have been no tax forms filed by the Next Generation CDC for 2006 itself—the year of the $100,000 football field grant—or thereafter.
The Next Generation CDC, and its muddled relationship to the Philadelphia NAACP, of which Mondesire was also president, has become the focus of questions by current and former NAACP members over how Mondesire has handled the group’s finances.
An ongoing investigation by AxisPhilly found that checks written out to the Philadelphia NAACP, one from a casino venture that Mondesire would later endorse, were instead deposited by Mondesire in a bank account for the Next Generation CDC and that the Next Generation CDC had become mired in debt after a series of successive mortgages on properties it owned.
Mondesire is now embroiled in a legal battle with fellow NAACP officers, who were listed as board members of the Next Generation CDC but say they knew nothing about it.
The application for the grant to the Next Generation CDC to restore the Aztecs’ football field sometimes refers to the “NAACP Next Generation CDC,” as if the two were the same.
It also raises the question of whether the work was done at all.
A $100,000 project
The application for the $100,000 grant, obtained by AxisPhilly, makes clear that Mondesire requested the money specifically to renovate the Aztec’s “grossly inadequate” playing field, as Mondesire wrote in a letter to DCED officials.
In a breakdown of how the money would be spent over two years, Mondesire cited fixing drainage problems ($20,000), erecting exterior lighting ($30,000) and bleachers ($20,000), building three storage sheds ($15,000) and putting up fencing ($15,000).
A letter stating the contract had been approved was sent to Mondesire by then-DCED Secretary Dennis Yablonsky in September, 2006. Mondesire submitted a requisition for payment a month later. A copy of that form, obtained by AxisPhilly, is marked “Rush,” as is a copy of the contract for the grant.
What happened next remains something of a mystery.
The “contract period” indicated in paperwork for the grant was three years—from June 2006 to July 2008. At some point after the time had expired, DCED’s Audits and Compliance Division sent Mondesire a letter informing him that he had failed to meet the contract’s close-out requirements and would be “ineligible to receive additional financial assistance” from the department until he submitted the required materials.
In December, 2008 Mondesire submitted back to DCED a copy of what purports to be an audit of the project by Jenkintown-based certified accounting firm Gocial Gerstein, LLC (now MGD, LLC).
That document, signed only in the company’s name, contains a single line listing “expenses” for “rehabilitation of youth group facilities” as $132,561, with no further breakdown of how and on what the expenses were made. Another note states that “all grant funds have been received from DCED and expended on eligible project costs.”
MGD, LLC did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.
Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokesperson for DCED, wrote in a statement that while DCED does require independent audits of grants of $100,000 or more, the agency relies on the outside audit and that “based on the audit results we had no reason to question if the work had been done.
The grant program in question, Kensinger added, has been eliminated.
Kensinger said that DCED was investigating the matter and that “if it is determined that any inappropriate activity has occurred we will take action.”
Mondesire did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story, nor did the attorney representing him in a civil suit filed by the other former Next Generation board members.