Help wanted | Dallas Observer

Help wanted

If there's one lesson Alice Britt says she learned during her short tenure as the head of the city's oldest job training and placement agency, it's that doing a good job doesn't pay.

On March 16, Britt was stunned to learn that she was fired from her position as executive director of Dallas SER Jobs for Progress Inc., a nonprofit agency that provides job training and placement for the poor, particularly Hispanics.

Britt, who was named executive director in February, wasn't the only one surprised by the news.

Although the decision was made during a regularly scheduled meeting of SER's 16-member board of directors, nearly half of the board was absent at the time of the surprise vote. Several board members who were not at the meeting say they were unaware of their colleagues' intentions to remove Britt until after the vote was taken.

"Did they make a decision to terminate her?" asks board member Dean Reynolds, who didn't know that Britt was fired until he was contacted by the Dallas Observer this week. "That concerns me, it really does. If SER is going to survive, we've got to work together. We can't do it by midnight assassinations."

Britt's ouster follows reports of financial mismanagement that earlier this year prompted the Dallas County Local Workforce Development Board to suspend the agency's funding and hire two private accountants to examine its books.

The workforce board, which administers state and federal grants to SER, is responsible for ensuring that the grant money is properly spent. Last month, the board stopped issuing checks to SER after agency officials were unable to account for how they spent between $60,000 and $120,000 in public funds, says Laurie Larrea, president of the workforce board.

"There is no suggestion at this point of wrongdoing, other than there is money we advanced them that they can't account for," Larrea says. "They [SER officials] presented an issue that they didn't think they had the money we said they had."

Although SER's financial troubles have now come to a head, they have been brewing for several months and appear to predate Britt's arrival to the agency in February, says Larrea, who adds that she was stunned by the board's decision to fire Britt.

"Alice's termination is a mystery to me. We did not expect that to be an issue," Larrea says. "Alice was very fine to work with. She appeared to be accountable."

When reached at home last week, Britt said she believes she was fired because she began to uncover a pattern of financial problems that some SER board members did not want to come to light.

"I was turning over too many financial rocks," says Britt, who formerly worked as a fund-raiser in SER's national office. "They didn't want me to keep asking questions. It's like they knew what the end result would be, but I didn't."

Britt, who says she cannot discuss the specific financial problems she uncovered, says five SER officials escorted her out of her office last Wednesday; one of them stood directly over her as she packed her belongings.

Gilbert Cerda, the chairman of SER's board and the person who reportedly pushed for last week's vote, refused to provide any explanation as to why Britt was fired or discuss the agency's financial troubles.

"I can't comment on all of this," says Cerda, who is also a Dallas police detective.

Leo Landin Jr., who is one of two board members who voted against the decision to fire Britt, said the board was concerned that Britt was not "meeting the criteria of her contract," but he declined to discuss those criteria in any detail.

"I can't speak legally about the meeting," says Landin, who would only add, "I did not vote for her termination."

Similarly, board member Maricela Vargas, who was not present during last Monday's meeting, says she was surprised by her colleagues' decision. While Vargas was aware the board had some questions about Britt's performance, she says her understanding of the situation was that the board and Britt were going to sit down and discuss those issues in an attempt to resolve them.

"I was not aware that that decision was going to be made on Monday," says Vargas, who declined to comment on the matter any further.

Other board members did not return the Observer's calls or could not be reached for comment.

Dallas SER is one of more than 40 SER chapters located across the United States under the umbrella of SER-Jobs for Progress National Inc., which is located in Irving.

In a March 12 letter to workforce board president Larrea, National SER President Hugo Cardona stated that the national office will provide money to the Dallas office to erase its debt to the workforce board. In addition, Cardona stated that he had dispatched an accountant to examine the agency's finances.

"It is now apparent to me that SER National must invest substantial resources in Dallas SER in order to return that organization to financial stability within the necessary time constraints," Cardona wrote.

When reached by telephone in Puerto Rico last Sunday, Cardona described the financial situation as "exceptional" and added that he expects the agency's finances to be in order by the end of April. In days, Cardona says the national office will approve a $1,000 credit line to assist the Dallas office.

Dallas SER received about $2.25 million in income last year, about half of it from the workforce board. The money is used to pay contractors who provide work and job training. Cardona claims the money in question was spent appropriately; the agency just can't say exactly where.

"I can almost assure you that, no, there was nothing criminal," Cardona says. "There is no deficit whatsoever. I can guarantee you the money is there."

Although several national SER employees have been assigned to assist the Dallas chapter, Cardona says he has asked his national vice president, Addison Durboraw, to oversee the operation.

Durboraw served as the executive director of Dallas SER until last October, when Cardona selected him to be SER's national vice president and his right-hand man. At the time, Durboraw was the authorizing agent who signed off on the same contracts that are now in question.

Although he's not convinced there was any criminal wrongdoing, board member Reynolds says Cardona's decision to appoint Durboraw to clear up questions with contracts he signed is "disturbing" because it appears designed to cover up the problems, rather than determine their cause and ensure they will not be repeated.

"You don't want to bring the same people back to redo the same errors or just kind of ice it over so it's unseen, because it'll just pop up again," Reynolds says.

When asked whether he's concerned about how the financial problems arose, Cardona says, "At this moment, I am not so much worried about what happened yesterday."

In accordance with federal law, Larrea notified the inspector general's office at the U.S. Department of Labor of the financial questions via an "incident report" she filed earlier this month.

In the next 60 days, the department will review Larrea's report and could decide to open an investigation into the matter.

Connie Logan, an assistant regional inspector general for the department, says she cannot discuss what action the department will take, citing the department's policy of not commenting until an investigation is complete.

Generally speaking, however, Logan says that when the department uncovers cases of criminal wrongdoing involving public funds, they are turned over to the U.S. attorney's office for prosecution. In cases in which financial errors are the result of innocent bookkeeping mistakes, the office has a variety of options, including monitoring the agency for future compliance or shutting it down.

Cardona says he does not believe the Labor Department will take any drastic action, but to avoid any problems, the national office will present the department with a business plan detailing the situation within the next two months.

"We have dealt with this in the past," he says. "My experience has been that the moment we come with the business plan, immediately they give us the green light to continue."

Those reassurances don't satisfy Reynolds, who says that he would welcome a federal investigation.

"I think there is an investigation needed," Reynolds says. "Until they do that and put everything in its proper place, they [the SER board] are not going to understand what went on and how to straighten it out.