Despite getting millions of dollars in government grants, some of its employees say they haven't been paid in months.
One of Chicago’s most legendary community organizations is under investigation by two state agencies after NBC Chicago’s Unit 5 Investigative Team, in partnership with The Chicago Reporter, raised questions about its finances.
The Woodlawn Organization – often referred to by its initials, T.W.O. -- was founded nearly 50 years ago by Dr. Leon Finney, a well-known community organizer with political connections to former Mayor Richard M. Daley.
In recent years, T.W.O. has been overseen by Dr. Finney’s wife, Georgette Greenlee Finney. T.W.O. runs a variety of community services, including Entry House, a substance-abuse treatment center on Chicago’s south side.
Earlier this month, several workers at Entry House approached Unit 5’s Marion Brooks to say that they haven’t been paid in months.
"I’m three months back in rent. I’ve lost a car through this process, and I’m about to lose the apartment that I stay in," said James Rogers, an Entry House employee who showed Unit 5 several memos from Mrs. Finney.
Finney claimed T.W.O. couldn’t stay current with its paychecks because it wasn’t getting money from the state of Illinois.
T.W.O. is funded almost entirely with government money, most of it coming from federal grants which are administered through state agencies such as the Illinois Department of Human Services.
Mrs. Finney told Unit 5 that the state has been very slow with its payments.
"We experienced slow pays and delays that we had not experienced before – ever," she said. Those slow payments, she said, have made it difficult to keep up with T.W.O.'s payroll.
But Unit 5’s investigation showed that the state has paid The Woodlawn Organization more than $4.5 million since January of 2011, with $1.6 million of that earmarked for Entry House. That’s actually $500,000 more than the amount Mrs. Finney said it costs to run the Entry House program annually.
Unit 5 also found that the state’s payments are almost completely up to date, contrary to Mrs. Finney’s assertions that they are far behind.
When NBC Chicago’s Marion Brooks asked Mrs. Finney where the Entry House funds have gone, she responded: "Entry House is part of a whole triage. It’s not a stand-alone island."
"Are you using the Entry House money for some of the other programs?" Brooks asked her.
"We use Entry House monies, definitely," Mrs. Finney responded. "Some of them go for management and overhead; they go for audits; they go for a number of other things -- yes -- as it relates to whatever the expectancy is."
But according to the Illinois Department of Human Services, T.W.O. is not allowed to use money from one grant -- such as the substance abuse grant that funds Entry House -- for other programs.
"Under program guidelines it is impermissible for a grantee to use funding for other reasons than intended," said Januari Smith Trader, the agency’s communications manager, in a written statement to Unit 5. "We will look into the matter regarding The Woodlawn Organization and take appropriate action."
Mrs. Finney’s accountant in a later interview contradicted the statements Mrs. Finney had earlier made to Brooks. The accountant stressed that Entry House money is used only for Entry House programs.
But neither Mrs. Finney nor her accountant would provide any documentation on how all the money was spent, showing just a spreadsheet of general expenses and income.
The Entry House workers, however, did provide documentation – in the form of several memos, written by Mrs. Finney to the T.W.O. employees throughout 2011, detailing the group’s payroll problems. The memos say the employees will be receiving half a paycheck during one month – or a late paycheck in another month – or no paycheck at all.
One worker, John Odom, filed a claim for unpaid wages with the Illinois Department of Labor. That claim has now been sent to the Illinois Attorney General for investigation.
He and the other Entry House workers don’t know what more to do.
"Entry House is the breadwinner for the Woodlawn Organization," said Odom’s colleague, Michael Alexander. "They are taking the lion’s share of the money, and passing us the crumbs. Now they are at the point where they don’t want to even give us the crumbs."
Unit 5 and its partner, The Chicago Reporter, will continue to investigate The Woodlawn Organization and its finances. You can also check out an extensive investigation – headed by Angela Caputo of The Chicago Reporter -- into a sister organization of T.W.O. -- run by Dr. Finney -- The Woodlawn Community Development Corporation.
Investigative news organization The Chicago Reporter joined forces with NBC Chicago to create hard-hitting stories on social and economic issues. Follow their stories at chicagoreporter.com.