Blind World Magazine

U.S. probes NFB.

October 02, 2005
The Baltimore Sun.

The U.S. Education Department's inspector general is investigating whether a senior official of the agency improperly helped the National Federation of the Blind win a key federal grant around the time she was discussing taking a job at the Baltimore-based nonprofit.

Joanne M. Wilson resigned as commissioner of the Rehabilitative Services Administration in March and went to work for the federation soon afterward. Wilson, who is blind, ran a federation affiliate in Louisiana before joining the Bush administration, and that affiliate is helping administer the grant.

Two fired employees of the National Federation of the Blind claim Wilson improperly gave crucial grant specifications to the charity last year before they were made available to other potential applicants. In recent months, an inspector general's investigator, Cheryl Cox, has interviewed at least one federation official as well as former employees.

"They did visit us," three or four weeks ago but did not talk to Wilson, said James Gashel, the federation's executive director for strategic initiatives, of the inspector general's office. "And I assume they're doing their due diligence. Somebody probably suggested to them that we did something improper."

The investigation raises more questions about the business practices of the federation and its affiliates, whose settlement with Oregon regulators over fundraising practices in that state and purchase of a top executive's Baltimore house were reported in this space in June.

Gashel strongly denied any impropriety on the part of the federation or Wilson, now the nonprofit's executive director for affiliate action. He said the allegations came from disgruntled former employees of the federation.

The probe might be motivated by politics, he added, because Wilson and the federation have criticized a Bush administration reorganization of the Rehabilitative Services Administration that they claim will harm the disabled.

"She made no secret of her dissatisfaction with the way the administration was doing things," Gashel said, adding that the federation is cooperating with the probe. Wilson "would love to talk to" The Sun to give her side, but she believed it would be improper while the inquiry is under way, he said.

The inquiry is not an audit; there is no indication that Education Department funds are being spent improperly.

Education Department policy is to neither confirm nor deny inspector-general probes, said spokesman Jim Bradshaw.

The five-year grant of potentially more than $1 million established the federation's National Center for Mentoring Excellence, which helps integrate young blind people into the work force. It was a major victory for the organization, which receives more than $17 million annually in contributions and claims more than 50,000 members.

Ruth Martin, the federation's former programs director, and Mary Brady, a one-time program officer, say the group got copies of a "notice inviting applications" for an Education Department grant by late June or early July 2004 - before it was published in the Federal Register on July 15, 2004. That could have given the federation a head start on preparing the application by the submission deadline of Aug. 19, 2004, they said.

Normal procedure is to notify all grant applicants through the Federal Register, Bradshaw said.

Brady, whom I interviewed several months ago, said the multi-page document was marked, "Do not copy. Do not disseminate."

The federation executive who supplied the document, Brady said, "either stated that it was Joanne Wilson who gave her the information, or it was assumed and known" that the document came from Wilson.

Martin, now a senior manager with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, said in an interview that she saw the grant invitation "well ahead" of its official July 15 publication. "Yes, I had it in my hands," she said. "And I was told that Joanne Wilson got it to the NFB." Martin said she has been interviewed several times about the matter by the inspector general's office.

Gashel denied the federation got early copies and said someone of Wilson's senior level could not have been involved in the minutiae of grant invitations.

"This is something I would know about, because I deal with our federal grants," he said. "And I can categorically tell you that that isn't true. She wouldn't have a copy to give to anybody."

He said Martin and Brady might have seen non-confidential documents issued earlier in 2004 that referred to future grants generally. Or the papers could have been detailed but outdated invitations brought by a consultant who had worked on a successful 2003 mentoring grant for another client, he said.

Martin and Brady, who both said they were fired by the federation after disagreeing with the organization's management practices and spending priorities, insisted that they saw the detailed 2004 grant invitation.

In any event, the federation applied and on Sept. 30, 2004, won an initial $250,000 for its mentoring program.

Around the time the federation was applying for the grant, Wilson was discussing future employment with the nonprofit organization, Martin said.

At a dinner in July or August 2004, "the primary topic of conversation was between [federation President Marc] Maurer and Gashel, prodding Joanne on what was she going to do after she left RSA," said Martin, who claims to have been at the dinner. "They really wanted her to come to the NFB."

Wilson, who managed a $2.9 billion budget in the Education Department, was noncommittal, Martin said. She resigned from the government in March 2005. By April she was working for the federation and giving an interview to The Washington Post, saying, "Programs for people with disabilities are being dismantled."

According to guidelines for federal employees prepared by the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, "You generally cannot work on a matter that will affect the financial interests of someone with whom you are seeking employment. This means that you may need to be disqualified from working on such a matter during your job search, as well as after you accept a job outside government."

Gashel said the timing of the grant award in 2004 had nothing to do with Wilson's hiring in 2005. He said he didn't recollect the topic of the dinner conversation. But because Wilson was a longtime friend of the federation who once worked for its Louisiana affiliate, general discussions about her post-government plans would be normal, he said.

"We are colleagues and friends and as fellow blind people it would be only natural" to discuss Wilson someday working for the federation, Gashel said. "We would talk about it. She would talk about it, but not in the context of some specific job."

In accordance with ethics restrictions, Wilson does not supervise the mentoring center, he said. And she could not have influenced the grant process because disinterested expert panels, not government managers, award the money.

Brady and several other former employees sued the federation for failing to pay them overtime. She and the federation reached a confidential settlement earlier this year.

Martin said she didn't know who alerted the inspector general's office about the grant-document allegations. Brady was out of the country last week and unavailable.

Gashel declined to speak in detail about Martin's and Brady's departures except to say they "didn't leave on good terms."

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