(Treasure Coast Newspapers (Stuart, FL) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) April 27--ST. LUCIE COUNTY -- Records show some of the Arts & Cultural Alliance of St. Lucie's financial transactions were tied to business affiliations of some of its board members.
Though not illegal, some critics said the Arts & Cultural Alliance has given off the appearance it has become a type of friendship club.
"It's not illegal, but it's not in conjunction with their mission," said Jeanne Johansen, former treasurer of the St. Lucie County Cultural Affairs Council. "Their mission is to promote the arts, not necessarily their nonprofits or their businesses that are not art related."
John Neprud, a local artist and former member of the county's Art in Public Places Committee, echoed Johansen's concerns.
"It's become a pattern, and it just doesn't look good," Neprud said.
During a June 10, 2010 Alliance board meeting, the board voted to contract with then-Board Chairwoman Rita Stikelether's accounting firm, Hill, Barth & King, to do the organization's nonprofit application. The firm also did the Alliance's taxes in the last four years, Stikelether, who is now the vice chair, said.
Minutes of the meeting showed Stikelether abstained from the vote. But Alliance Board member Debra Magrann, though voted in favor of the contract, said she felt uneasy about giving the contract to the firm where Stikelether is an accountant.
"In the back of my mind I thought, 'Isn't this a conflict of interest?' " Magrann said. "I didn't think it was quite right."
Magrann said she voted for it anyway because everybody else on the board did.
Stikelether said she didn't think it was a conflict because she abstained from the vote, and a colleague -- not her -- performed the work. She declined to comment further, citing client confidentiality.
Records show Hill, Barth & King charged the Alliance $3,000 for the 501c3 application and nearly $1,700 for four years worth of tax returns.
Alliance Board Chairman Craig Mundt said the Alliance went out for bids on the contract and only one firm responded, which he could not recall the name of the firm or produce the request for proposal or responses. The newspaper found the other firm was Koplas & Co. of Palm City.
Firm owner Michael Koplas said he doesn't recall a formal request for proposal nor does he have one on file. He said his firm was contacted by Jennifer Camp, the Alliance's former grants and contracts director, who asked for a quote on what the firm would charge to do the Alliance's nonprofit application and taxes. Koplas said he would have charged an organization up to $2,800 in 2009 to do the tax exemption application and four years worth of taxes, which is almost $2,000 cheaper than what Hill, Barth & King charged.
Board members of private nonprofits aren't subject to the state's ethics laws, which prohibit public officers and public officials from doing business with their own agency, though there are some exemptions.
Records show the board also moved $360,000 of public money from TD Bank to Harbor Community Bank where Alliance board member Leslie Stokes works as a retail banking director. Mundt said the Alliance got a better rate by transferring the money, but he could not provide what the rate was. Neither could Stikelether. Stokes couldn't be reached for comment.
Richard Gabel, former executive director of the alliance, said some of the money was kept at TD Bank and the rest, $360,000, was moved to Harbor Community Bank not only because it had better interest rates than other banks, but also to better guarantee FDIC insurance coverage. The alliance put half of the $360,000 into an annual CD and the rest was put into a money market account so the organization could pay bills and make the grants, Gabel said.
The Alliance also gave money to the Treasure Coast Food Bank where Alliance board member Anthony Westbury served on its board of directors from May 2006 until June 2012. Westbury also is a columnist for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers. The Alliance supported the Food Bank's "Empty Bowls Project" with a $1,500 sponsorship to help art teachers purchase supplies for their students who design and make the bowls. The Alliance gave $1,000 to the food bank in February 2012 and $500 in February 2013.
Gabel said he had no knowledge Westbury was a member of the Food Bank's board of directors. He said the Food Bank approached the alliance and asked for a sponsorship, and it was a way the alliance could get its name in front of the public.
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