A nonprofit backed by U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.) spent more than $2 million in federal funds to provide environmental education to Philadelphia high school students—including trips to a resort in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
For three years, the Caribbean-American Mission for Research, Education, and Action ran an exchange program for students at Overbrook High School and two island high schools.
The Philadelphia students and their adult chaperones stayed at the Marriott Frenchman’s Reef beachfront resort, on what the hotel website calls a “luminous white sand beach framed with the majestic turquoise waters of the Caribbean.”
Fattah’s longtime friend James P. Baker Jr. was paid as much as $142,000 annually to run the organization, far more than usual for charities of that size. One federal audit said students on one trip spent “less than half” their time learning about the environment.
The organization, which has been inactive since 2009, is one of a network of nonprofits that have received millions in federal funds earmarked by Fattah. Some of the organizations have paid salaries to former staffers and others in his political network.
The FBI has investigated some of the nonprofits for possible misuse of federal funds. In January, FBI agents showed up at the South Florida home of the Caribbean-American Mission’s chairman, Mikel D. Jones, to ask about its finances, according to an FBI memo filed in federal court.
No charges have been filed, and Fattah and employees of the nonprofits have denied wrongdoing.
Fattah defended the group, known as CAMERA, as “an excellent program” that helped students clean up the environment in Philadelphia and the Caribbean.
He said the board members did “an excellent job,” and added, “I am aware of no other federal program that received a better audit review.”
He said he had “no formal role” in establishing the organization or in selecting Jones for the board.
“The FBI has not and is not investigating CAMERA,” Fattah said in an e-mail late Wednesday. “Any suggestion to the contrary is irresponsible and unfounded.”
As for the FBI inquiry into the other nonprofits, Fattah said, “Even unfounded allegations have to be preliminary-reviewed.”
The FBI questions about the Caribbean-American Mission surfaced in the unrelated case involving Jones, the board chairman. Agents spent about 10 hours grilling him, suggesting he could help himself by wearing a wire, according to a filing by his attorney.
Aside from questions about Jones’ finances—he hasn’t paid taxes since 2004—the agents spent a lot of time asking about Fattah, the congressman’s family, and the Caribbean-American nonprofit, the memo shows.
Jones said the congressman asked him to run the board, according to the FBI memo on the interview. But Jones said he had grown uneasy and wanted to leave.
“He was uncomfortable with the lack of transparency and the general fiscal management of the organization,” the FBI memo said. Jones wasn’t specific, the FBI said, but told agents he wasn’t happy with the information he was getting from Baker.
“Everything we did was transparent,” Baker said in an interview. He referred other questions to his attorney, who declined to comment.
Jones, a personal-injury lawyer and an aide to U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings (D., Fla.), now faces unrelated federal fraud charges for misusing a $150,000 loan from a city program.
Fattah said he had “no conversation, knowledge, or involvement” in the charges against Jones.
The Caribbean-American organization was founded in October 2002 by Baker, a pastor and business consultant who attended Overbrook High with Fattah.
Baker briefly worked on Fattah’s state legislative staff and has been involved in Fattah’s political operation. Fattah’s congressional campaign paid Baker $13,000 and a Fattah-linked state PAC, Progress 2000, paid $129,000 to two of Baker’s companies involved in political campaigns.
He’s also interim CEO of the Hospitals and Higher Education Facilities Authority of Philadelphia, which over the last decade has provided about $600 million to local hospital and long-term care facilities.
Fattah said he has known Baker as a friend and ally in helping “thousands of young people secure a college education and countless others to clean up their lives and get off drugs.” He says he has never had an “inappropriate or untoward interaction” involving Baker.
The CAMERA program was originally conceived as an exchange program involving students from Overbrook, Washington, and the Virgin Islands. The mission was to help the students “develop an understanding of the importance of caring for the environment locally and globally,” according to grant files.
Fattah’s wife, NBC10 anchor Renee Chenault-Fattah, was originally listed as the honorary chairperson of the group. In 2004, she traveled with Baker, Jones, and other board members on a “planning conference” to Anguilla.
“Consistent with her duties” on other boards, “Mrs. Fattah pays her own travel expenses,” Fattah’s office said.
Records show that Fattah used his congressional power to “earmark” funds for CAMERA, as he did with other nonprofits.
Earmarks are specific appropriations inserted into the budget by members of Congress. Fattah said that all his earmarks were “appropriate” and that the nonprofits had a record of “exemplary public service.”
A total of $1.2 million came through the Environmental Protection Agency. There, staff members had questions about the program—including whether the participation of Fattah’s wife violated federal conflict-of-interest rules.
An EPA lawyer replied that “the rule doesn’t apply in this situation,” agency e-mails show.
For three years, beginning in 2003, CAMERA also received more than $1 million in grants from the congressional appropriation to support District of Columbia government, records show.
The records don’t indicate the member of Congress who inserted the funds, which district budget officials said were simply passed through to CAMERA. They said there were no records that any students from Washington ever participated in the program, or that anybody in the district checked on how CAMERA was spending the money.
“No one has heard” of CAMERA in Washington school offices, a spokeswoman said. Fattah said the money from the Washington budget didn’t go to students, but to pay “higher-education experts” to combat drugs and improve education in the Caribbean.
During the annual trips, the students visited a sea park, cleaned beaches with Virgin Islands students, and went on an eco-kayak tour.
One trip had 29 students and six adults, and another had 11 chaperones for 32 students, documents provided to the EPA show. The adults weren’t identified, but one student said most were teachers.
“It was a wonderful trip,” said former Overbrook student Martese Mason, who went in 2005. She said it gave the class a broader view of the world.
One EPA audit was skeptical that the money was well spent. “The itinerary for the first trip ... indicates a very limited amount of time (10.5 hours) was spent on environmental projects,” the audit said. Auditors found that the students spent much of their time on recreation, including a shopping trip and a movie night. Sixteen students went twice, auditors found.
But EPA officials in the Philadelphia region defended the program. In the end, the nonprofit had to pay back just $6,000 to EPA in unallowed costs.
Fattah said the rooms at the Marriott cost $160, a government-approved rate; students were three to a room.
Once back in Philadelphia, the Overbrook students continued with environmental classroom sessions and participated in field trips like tree-plantings and neighborhood cleanups.
The program also purchased 121 computers for Overbrook and two high schools on the island of St. Thomas.
“The students were transformed into environmental activists” who made real contributions, Baker wrote in a report to the EPA.
Baker’s salary for the organization ranged from $86,000 to nearly $143,000 until 2009, when the organization ran out of money.
A study by GuideStar, a charity-tracking service, said that salary was more typical of nonprofits 10 times the size of CAMERA.
One expert in charity organizations said CAMERA has too many connections between Fattah insiders.
“It’s a lousy arrangement,” said Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy. “It’s what a well-run nonprofit tries to avoid.”
He said the group provided Fattah with “a nice way to reward his former staffer” and said it would be difficult for Jones to effectively oversee Baker.
J.J. Klaver, an FBI spokesman, declined to comment.
Copyright (c) 2011, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.