Poor Relations

Guess what happened when Cleo Sims and her felonious offspring took over a Dallas anti-poverty agency

At one point, holding up mock-ups of the projects, she says these are the things that matter to her--and her family.

She gave her daughter a job because "I love my daughter dearly and unconditionally," she says. "I do what I can to assist my kids to become better folk...She needed a job." Tax forms show the daughter was paid $25,683 last year.

Bringing up her own lifestyle as a defense to the state's audit, Sims says she drives "a 1988 falling-apart car that falls down every other week."

That said, a review of property records in Dallas County suggests Sims' 1988 Cadillac is less a necessity than a spending choice. She is listed as owner of a lot appraised at $29,760 in Balch Springs purchased in 1994 and a lot valued at $14,000 near Duncanville. She purchased a creek-side home on Hunters View Lane in South Oak Cliff, appraised at $85,930, in July 1974.

Some of the expenses mentioned in the state's review draw a picture of a poverty agency that doesn't manage its tight sources of money very closely and affords its top official generous spending. DCCAC paid more than $4,000 in bounced-check charges in 1996 and the first four months of 1997, and $6,084 in penalties and fines for late payment of taxes, according to the audit and interviews.

Patsy Wright, the agency's assistant finance director, puts that problem at the feet of the state, saying the housing and community affairs department is late in sending grant funds. But Montgomery says the state pays DCCAC its allotments ahead of schedule. It is the only community action program in the state that has accumulated these amounts of late fees, which the state will not pay with government funds, he says.

Meanwhile, Sims spent $276 in April 1996 on plants. Her cellular phone bill for the year was $4,200. There was a purchase last September for "straw hats for staff." They cost $127.36.

In all, the state is questioning $13,886 in DCCAC checks paid the director, including a $1,747 payroll advance, travel charges, and hotel receipts. Sims showed the Observer files of several questioned travel expenses and purchases, requested at random, and she was able to provide receipts and documents to back them up as legitimate agency expenses.

"I think the state came in looking for trouble," says board president Givens. "I think they came with that intent because of the factional trouble we're having."

Sims, too, is quick to dismiss the state's inquiry as politics. "It's dirty politics," she says. "A group of men who have said it's time for black men to be in charge want to take over this organization."

Considering the problems cited in the 1996 state monitoring report and the fact that employees have been complaining to the state for two years, the agency's woes seem to run deeper than that. Still, some sizzling board politics have emerged around the turmoil of the past year. There has been an unsuccessful coup, a successful move by Sims' allies to rally support for her on the board, and attempts on both sides to line up support among influential African-American politicians.

The coup--as many call it--came last winter, when Teddy Hawkins, who has worked in several local political campaigns, and Ken Green, a former college counselor who has run unsuccessfully for several elected posts in Dallas, lobbied Dallas City Council members to make appointments to the DCCAC board to fill vacant seats.

The seven new members marched into a meeting in February with their letters, and the coup was on.

"It failed," says Givens. "Some guys came in with letters saying they were on the board and tried to conduct business. "So what happened is, we had time to think about it and see what had gone on, what the coup-attempt people were trying to do. We took the necessary action to get the board in its proper state."

What that means is that Sims and Hunter--the past president who had already stepped down in February under pressure from the state--sought appointments sympathetic to Sims, or so say Green and Hawkins.

"Cleo Sims is the DCCAC," says Green, a board member in the early 1990s. "The board should run the agency, but it was always just Dr. Hunter and Cleo Sims."

Sims' allies were able to kick the coup members out by invoking rules giving only a nominating committee the power to seat new board members. That panel is headed by DCCAC's vice president, Don Weckwerth, a former officer of Commercial National Bank. That institution, which last year was bought by Inwood National Bank, provided DCCAC with $300,000 in loans. Asked recently to comment about Sims and the agency, Weckwerth hung up the phone.

The board eventually picked the soft-spoken Givens as the new president. "I'm quiet, but I'm not someone who sits about here and doesn't do a job," he says.

Green, who says the plan was for him to become executive director and Hawkins president of the board, says the coup failed because "Teddy talked too much. He gave them time to circle the wagons."

Hawkins, who is voluble, says he wants DCCAC to sell its housing--"They're a slumlord," he says--and refocus the group on job training. His first wish, though, is to oust Sims, and he and a group of picketers were in front of the agency this month, blasting the Sims family's nepotism.

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