- Special Projects
The Central Oahu elderly-care center at the center of a probe into possible misuse of $7.9 million in federal grants has not fully accomplished what it set out to do, a Civil Beat investigation found.
An examination of 10 years of documents obtained from the city through an open records request reveals that ORI Anuenue Hale, Inc., has not served as many clients as it initially said it would.
Underutilization was one of the chief complaints made by federal investigators after a site visit to ORI last spring. During routine monitoring, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that ORI mischaracterized the use of its facilities and appeared to overstate how many clients it served. ORI says it disagrees with HUD’s findings.
HUD called the nonprofit’s use of federal monies “unacceptable,” and said the city and ORI would have to repay nearly $8 million in federal Community Development Block Grant money if it did not take “immediate corrective action” to come into compliance. (Read a related article about the steps ORI and the city are taking to avoid having to return the money.)
Investigators reported seeing just five elderly clients at the ORI Wellness Center on a surprise site visit. Civil Beat’s investigation of grant applications found that ORI told the federal government it would serve “100 unduplicated” individuals, though a timeframe is not specified. In a required report to HUD to avoid paying back federal funds, ORI recently said it is aiming to serve 50 clients on a “regular basis.”
A program director and spokeswoman for ORI, Yvonne de Luna, disputes the results of the HUD investigation, calling it a “very severe remedy.”
“We feel that we have had more than the five people that they claim,” de Luna said. “We certainly have more than that that have utilized the facility. It was to us an incomplete monitoring. There isn’t really a set objective that they gave us.”
De Luna said that the center is focused on increasing the number of clients it serves, but said that funding constraints make it difficult to do so. She said she wasn’t certain “off the top of (her) head” how many full-time staff members ORI has, or what the staff-to-client ratio might be.
“We certainly want to continue to try to increase utilization,” de Luna said. “But I think there is a reality to anything: You need funds.”
Without funds from the federal government, ORI’s sprawling complex never would have been built. Helemano Plantation, a sister facility opened as a home and workplace for mentally disabled residents in 1984, was the first center built on what grew to be ORI’s now 40-acre plot. Today, the complex also includes a Wellness Center that provides adult day care and activities for seniors, as well as a collection of cabins designed to be senior residences called Camp Pineapple 808.
Susanna Cheung, ORI’s founder, sought to expand the services she launched at Helemano Plantation. More than 10 years ago, she began petitioning the city, state and federal government for financial backing for a site that would also cater to seniors’ needs.
“The facility will be a place to live, learn, enjoy nature, and play,” ORI wrote in a June 2000 application. “It is envisioned to be a park-like campus with outdoor areas for appreciation of nature and recreation, a modest residential ‘village,’ and facilities for vocational training, food service, and administration. This project needs a site that is natural and rural in character, accessible to public recreation, beaches, etc., and compatible with surrounding uses and community interests. Its clientele will include both day users and residents.”
ORI had its sights set on the patch of agricultural land next to Helemano, and surrounded by the pineapple fields that stretch across Oahu’s North Shore. Documents show the nonprofit bought 30 acres from Dole Food Co., and received 10 more acres in a donation from Castle and Cooke.
Records detailing CDBG receipts show that ORI received $1.5 million in 2001. By 2004, it had received $5 million in CDBG funds. It is not immediately clear how much public funding ORI accepted in all. From a federal funding standpoint, HUD described the $7.9 million it gave to the nonprofit as one of the largest awards of CDBG money in the state.
More recently, in 2008 ORI asked for $400,000 in CDBG funding to renovate a kitchen. Part of the justification it gave for needing to upgrade its facility was the estimated spike in clients that would come with the addition of the Wellness Center and Camp Pineapple 808.
“ORI anticipates an expansion of services requiring the renovation of its existing food preparation facilities in order to allow the agency to provide for twice the number of people than what it currently serves,” the nonprofit wrote in its 2008 application. “ORI currently serves a minimum of 120 meals per day to persons with developmental disabilities (lunch and dinner), 7 days a week. … ORI proposes to serve an additional 100 individuals with disabilities and/or elderly 3 meals per day at minimum 5 days a week, which is anticipated to incrementally grow.”
De Luna told Civil Beat that she is not certain whether ORI obtained the funding for the kitchen renovation, but said she believed the money was appropriated through state funds that are “depending on the governor” and have not yet been released.
During the years of expanding the site, internal audits obtained by Civil Beat show ORI’s financial record-keeping was at times problematic. While an independent auditor reported that the nonprofit was meeting the obligations for each of its “major federal programs,” he also reported at least two straight years in which ORI failed to file its 1099 tax form, as required by law. The form reveals key recipients of pay and contracts from a nonprofit.
The auditor also reported that for three straight years, ORI deposited “restricted assets” into a general bank account. An audit from May of last year says that ORI agreed to take steps to resolve these issues. De Luna said she’s not aware of them.
“I don’t handle the financial part,” she said. “I mean, you know, I’m sure there would be an explanation for all of that. We’ve tried our best to do what is necessary.”
2010 was the same year that ORI opened its Wellness Center and Camp Pineapple 808. It secured funding for the new facilities with the promise of recreational, social and therapeutic activities including weekly “tai-chi, massage, meditation, arts and crafts, drama and dance/movement therapy and computer classes,” as well as occasional cooking classes.
It’s not clear whether all of those activities are offered but after refusing a visit from Civil Beat earlier this year, ORI has since declared a summer-long “open house” so that members of the community could “see for themselves what the recently completed center is all about and what it offers.”
It is also defending its use of Camp Pineapple 808’s cabins for private rental, in addition to the elderly residences it aims to serve there. In order to comply with federal eligibility standards, ORI has agreed to suspend rentals to outside groups.
“I believe the original intent for the camp was to not only serve as the target group but also to generate some income for program services as well as operations maintenance for the facility,” de Luna said.
The ORI planning documents obtained by Civil Beat do not outline rental of camp facilities to outside groups, but refer to “limited companion living for the elderly and disabled.”
De Luna acknowledges that ORI has to take steps to meet HUD’s requirements, but she also emphasizes how much ORI accomplished in a 10-year period.
“The money that was invested by the government in this project was huge but you can see where the money goes,” De Luna said. “It isn’t an empty land. For people who don’t see it, they really cannot visualize. When they hear of ‘misuse,’ other things come into people’s head. When you come to the place and you really get to know us, there’s a lot of things that we’ve done, and a lot of things that we want to do. Regulations sometimes can tie people’s hands, and receiving funding, also, limits what we would like to do.”
The City Council’s Budget Committee is set to discuss federal funding “issues” related to ORI on Wednesday.