ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- There are calls for an investigation into a city agency that manages $10 million of taxpayer money after a News 4 Investigation raised questions about an elected official’s timesheets as he collected public funds.
A number of people now also say it's just one example of rampant mismanagement at the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment, or as it is more commonly known, SLATE.
News 4’s Lauren Trager spoke with more than two dozen current and former employees of the taxpayer-funded agency.
They come from different backgrounds; some have worked there for years and some for shorter periods of time.
All of them expressed alarm and concern about a city department that's intended to do good.
“Something has to be done and it has to be done right now”
Fearing retaliation, current and former employees of SLATE spoke to News 4 anonymously.
One was astounded with what they were confronted with, saying, “In my years with the city, never, ever have I seen anything like this.”
Dozens of people are now reporting concern about how SLATE is being run.
“It’s sad to see it decline so much in a short amount of time,” said another whistleblower.
The agency aims to help job seekers and businesses connect. Funded by millions of dollars funneled through a variety of taxpayer-funded grants, the agency runs a number of programs.
“There is a big need out there but none of it is being met, because of the dysfunction at the agency,” said a whistleblower.
Some of those we talked to say they love the work but say it all started to change under new leadership.
In August 2017, Mayor Lyda Krewson removed the previous executive director and appointed Dr. Alice Prince to the top spot in the agency.
“It was not in a mess when she took over,” said one whistleblower.
As proof of problems, employees point to the "Taylor Swift snafu."
“That was the worst day working there,” a whistleblower said.
In September, SLATE mistakenly announced 200 jobs to work the Taylor Swift concert, when no such jobs existed.
“We had people very upset and angry with us,” a whistleblower said.
Some whistleblowers say they’re also not sure how money's being spent at the agency.
Meeting minutes obtained by News 4 from July of 2018 indicate that officials believed the agency was in a fiscal crisis, owing millions of dollars though leaders said it was getting back on track.
But some employees say there have been questionable purchases. One from June, according to employees, was a total of $11,000 for new reception furniture in the job center.
STATE REPRESENTATIVE BRUCE FRANKS’ TIMESHEETS
Some employees also say there’s little oversight on the payroll.
News 4 has discovered questions about employees’ timesheets, including those for State Representative Bruce Franks from when he worked as a subcontractor for the agency.
For some, Missouri State Representative Bruce Franks’ name is synonymous with public service.
But now, some people are raising questions about whether he used the public’s tax dollars properly.
Franks has long wanted to make a big difference, especially for young people in the community.
After a legal battle over a previous election, he was elected and took public office in January of 2017.
He also was working another job, as a youth mentor in St Louis.
The position was technically with the United Auto Workers Labor and Employment and Training Corporation (UAW-LETC), but for a program administered by SLATE: The St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment.
It’s a St. Louis-based agency that uses tax dollars to help job seekers and businesses.
“I thought that was unethical and inappropriate, it just didn't seem right. It just didn't seem right,” said one whistleblower, a former employee who spoke to News 4 under the condition of anonymity.
Whistleblowers we talked to question whether it was ethical for the state representative to collect tax dollars in that position and questioned what Franks was actually doing for SLATE.
Through a public records request, News 4 obtained copies of time sheets submitted by Franks from July of 2017 until mid-February of 2018.
He was paid for the work as indicated. A part-time employee, his signatures appear to be on the timesheets. His hours were marked down on the timesheets; 4, 7 and often 8 hours a day.
News 4 extensively reviewed our own archive video, social media posts, and other sources and it appears Franks often was working with youth.
But when comparing his timesheets, we also found certain things that appear to raise some questions.
In September 2017, Franks said he was at work, mentoring youth from 10 to 4, but our cameras captured him at a Board of Aldermen meeting during that time instead.
And later that same day, he attended a protest and news conference on the steps outside City Hall.
In November 2017, Franks' timesheet says he worked from 8 to 4, but video from the St. Louis city website shows Franks attended a meeting at city hall for the better part of an hour during that time.
Later that month, on November 24th, Franks said he worked from 8 until 4, but we know he was actually at the Galleria mall.
During a protest there, Franks was arrested.
One day in December 2017, Franks' timesheet said he worked from 8 in the morning until noon, but a post he made on Facebook said he was in Washington DC that day, at a conference for LGBTQ issues.
A review of the agenda from the conference had him slated to speak on a panel about political dissent at 10:45 am, the same timeframe his timesheet said he was working. The agenda listed him by his official title as “State Representative.”
Over two days in January 2018, Franks indicated he worked 11 hours, but multiple Facebook posts show he was in the Chicago area
“That’s immoral,” said one whistleblower.
Fearing retaliation, current and former SLATE employees asked to be anonymous.
“That’s wrong to say I'm at work and I'm not,” a whistleblower said.
In all, News 4 found nearly 30 instances in seven months, where some people may say it’s questionable if Franks was mentoring during those times.
There are other instances where he was attending press conferences about officer-involved shootings, posting from Jefferson City in his capacity as a state representative, or posting on Facebook saying he was sick or on bed rest. In each of these situations, Franks’ timesheets indicated he was working, and he was paid tax dollars for that time.
That is a potential problem, according to Curtis Kalin with Citizens Against Government Waste.
“The sheer number of instances you found grows the questions as more instances come out,” Kalin said.
Kalin says those questions need answers.
“The city should absolutely take this seriously,” he said. “It’s worth it because taxpayers deserve for their money to be spent wisely.”
News 4 wanted to know if Franks may have in fact been mentoring during those times.
The contract for his job appears to show that no offsite meetings are allowed.
Franks is often very outspoken and especially honest in recent weeks about struggles with physical and mental health.
He declined to talk to News 4 in an on-camera interview.
Shortly after our request to do so, Franks took to social media again, posting pictures of himself with young people and saying quote: "When politicians, minions, and politics are trying to force you to resign by painting pictures of you that the community know is bull****"”
News 4 also took the timesheet concerns directly to SLATE Executive Director, Dr. Alice Prince.
“You’re bringing that to my attention and that's the first time, I am hearing about it,” Dr. Prince said.
She says Franks was a 24-hour mentor and not subject to requirements that he be present at the SLATE office.
“Our mentors do Facetime, social media, they do unconventional ways of mentoring,” Prince said.
She says she was not aware it was a potential conflict of interest for Franks to be both a state lawmaker and work a job paid with public funds until a year into his term.
His official employment with UAW-LETC ended in Feb. 2018.
“At the end of the day, he cares about young people, at the end of the day, he changed lives. He stopped someone from committing suicide, so I did not, but when I thought there was an issue, I handled it,” Prince said.
When asked about the various examples of timesheet questions, she said, “I understand that, but right now, I can't speak to that, because it’s my first time hearing about it.”
Prince said she will conduct a review.
“I think that in any situation and any time someone is not doing something they're supposed to be doing it's not appropriate, whether it's Bruce or anybody,” she said.
But some employees News 4 talked to say Dr. Prince already should have known, and one felt Prince may have been letting it happen.
“As a leader, I take responsibility for all the oversight in this organization, I do. I am not perfect, but I do try to be a better version of myself every day,” Prince said.
News 4 tried on several occasions to get Franks' comment for this story. We even had an interview scheduled, but Franks cancelled it, saying he would be releasing a press release as soon as our story airs. When we have his comments, we will bring them to you.
The lawmaker, who also recently announced he is running for a state Senate seat, has recently filed for bankruptcy. Our review of the documents appears to show he did not include thousands of dollars in pay he received from SLATE when listing his income from 2017.
“I don't know how deep this goes”
And some employees with close knowledge of the issues say they think there might be other instances of questions about employees timesheets.
“Some of the employees basically don't ever report to work. Some of the signatures are questionable for those employees,” said a whistleblower.
Current employees say in more recent months, they've been asked to do things they feel are wrong.
“I shouldn't have to feel like I have to go to work, falsify documents and lie, just to keep my job,” one said.
Workers say they're having to bolster the agency’s data to make it appear as if the agency is helping more people.
“It’s a lie and the people are not getting served,” one whistleblower said.
"On the inside, it's a house of horrors”
But employees say when they try to raise concerns, they're retaliated against.
“It was terrible, people were crying, people would cry daily and I am not exaggerating,” said a whistleblower.
“She got this face for the public, but on the inside, it's a house of horrors,” said a whistleblower about Dr. Prince.
A number of current and former employees told us they wrote letters to city leaders and lodged formal complaints with city and state entities.
In a response to one employee's complaints, the city's Director of Personnel wrote that he found that the work environment was hostile.
But some employees say they feel they're being ignored.
“I wish City Hall would pay attention,” a whistleblower said.
News 4 took the whistleblowers’ concerns directly to Dr. Prince, who refuted claims of a hostile work environment.
“I feel like this is one of the best places to work,” she said.
She denies the employees’ claims about the data being inflated, saying they were only being more aggressive about trying to connect people to jobs.
“I cannot apologize for giving my staff a tool and setting high expectations to give people jobs,” Prince said.
And she defends her leadership.
“They have a right to feel how they feel, but I have a duty to this community,” she said.
As for the furniture? News 4 asked: Is that an appropriate use of tax dollars?
“It is, because when people enter SLATE, it looks like I got a job, not I am looking for a job, it’s not a social service,” Prince said.
And she says the organization is not in a fiscal crisis.
“I am a passionate person and maybe I used a passionate adjective, but we are not in a fiscal crisis,” she said.
Still, the employees now calling for more than lip service, saying taxpayers ought to be concerned.
“They should be concerned about how the money is being spent and how those grant funds are being allocated. Somebody needs to come into SLATE and investigate everything,” said a whistleblower.
Dr. Prince promised a review of State Representative Franks’ timesheets, but denied that there were any other issues with ghost employees.