The plight of Cleveland Works is as ironic as it is tragic. With its founder and former executive director facing drug and racketeering charges, the welfare-to-work agency that used to enjoy national attention and was once touted in a speech by President Clinton is now struggling just to stay afloat. Cleveland Works has already been forced to lay off 20 percent of its staff -- an especially painful concession for an organization whose mission for more than 10 years has been to help the city's poor find work. And if more money doesnt come through soon to feed the agency's $100,000-a-month budget, it could be out of business before the end of next month.
"What we need right now is money," says Ed Francis, who, along with John Lawson, has been leading the troubled agency. "It's just that simple."
This year would have been tough no matter what. Ohio's budget crunch has forced many nonprofits to cut back; Cleveland Works' annual contract with the county was slashed from $375,000 to $182,000. Then last month, founder and executive director David Roth, and employees Mike Periandri Sr. and Jr., were accused of operating a drug ring out of the agency's downtown office. According to county prosecutors, Roth and the Periandris were buying and selling heroin, cocaine, and Oxycontin, among other drugs. All three have pleaded not guilty.
The county suspended its contract with the agency, because it stipulates that Cleveland Works be drug-free. That contract represented 15 percent of the agency's $1.2 million budget. It may not sound like much, but in a year when the agency had already cut to the bone, this could be a mortal blow. "There's almost no place else to cut, other than more layoffs," Francis says.
The accusation that Roth used public money for drugs was "blown out of proportion," says Francis. He adds that the charge appears to stem from a $1,500 bonus that Roth gave to Mike Periandri Sr., and that the money had nothing to do with drugs. "The reason was that the man was in danger of losing his house to foreclosure," Francis says. "David has always been extremely generous. That's his nature."
A letter by Roth, obtained by the county, states only that the bonus "is to acknowledge that [Periandri Sr.] is working in marketing while still undertaking the responsibilities as a client advocate." Dan Kasaris, the assistant county prosecutor handling the case, would not directly address the bonus, but hinted that the allegation goes deeper than Francis indicated. "We know it's more than $5,000 and less than $100,000," says Kasaris. "That makes it a felony in the fourth degree."
Cleveland Works is now scrambling to pay its bills. In the hope of winning back the county contract, the agency's board of trustees has enacted several policies meant to restore faith, including a rule requiring board approval for raises and bonuses, as well as a more stringent drug policy.
Whether such moves can counter the shock of Roth's arrest remains to be seen. Last week, the Cleveland Foundation -- which disperses charitable money and has given Cleveland Works grants in the past -- convened a meeting of government agencies and private groups. "I anticipate by the end of this week that we will have contacted Cleveland Works to let them know what, if anything, the funding community can do to be helpful," says Cleveland Foundation spokeswoman Goldie Alvis.
For its part, Cleveland Works might bring in a "high-profile, well-respected" community leader to serve as interim executive director and "validate the integrity of the program," Francis says. The agency has a short list of candidates, but Francis would name only former county commissioner and gubernatorial candidate Tim Hagan.
But when Scene contacted Hagan last week, he said hed already made up his mind not to head the floundering agency. "I've got too many other conflicting things that I couldn't bring enough attention to it," said Hagan, who reportedly is negotiating a deal to provide political commentary for WKYC Channel 3.
Cleveland Works recently mailed 9,000 letters to potential donors and secured some financial assistance as a result, Francis said. The board of trustees also kicked in some money. "It gave us a couple more weeks. We're pretty much hand-to-mouth at this point," Francis says.
For now, the agency is depending on its savings to stay alive. But that could run out as soon as next month. If Cleveland Works doesn't find a new source of funding before then, its long history of helping others could be brought to an abrupt end.
"But when we started this whole thing, we couldn't make it to the end of October," says Francis, trying for optimism. "So we're making progress."