A criminal investigation into Cobb County’s juvenile court system may inadvertently destroy a local charity that provides troubled youths and their families with clothes, tutoring, college scholarships and other resources to help get their lives back on track.
In the coming weeks, an ex-court administrator, a one-time contractor and the former head of the charity, called Reconnecting Families, will be arraigned on racketeering and other felony charges. One former contractor has already pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the state and theft by deception in the case.
The investigation threatens the survival of Reconnecting Families, a local nonprofit that has worked closely with the juvenile court for the past eight years. It helps about 150 children and 75 families each year.
“It affected good people and people who do good in the community,” Cobb District Attorney Vic Reynolds said. “The thrust of this investigation was not directed at that charity. It was directed at where there was a misappropriation of (state) grant money.”
Even so, the case has driven away key donors to the charity, given that one of its own former employees has been charged in the conspiracy. The nonprofit also no longer has access to the juvenile court system.
The Reconnecting Families board will meet on Wednesday to discuss disbanding.
“We’re very unsure about the future of the organization,” said Sarah Gaither, the nonprofit’s board chair. “It’s unfortunate that because of the turn of events that we have to rethink this.”
‘Lines started to become blurred’
Turmoil in the Cobb juvenile court began when new administrator Laura Murphree started looking closely last year at every aspect of the operation she was hired to oversee.
Murphree almost immediately heard from some employees that the court was a “toxic work environment.” And her investigation soon became a criminal issue, a personnel issue and a very personal issue with subtle suggestions of vendettas that led to felony charges.
Ultimately, four people were named in a 27-count racketeering indictment in December. Former Reconnecting Families executive director Deborah Ponder, ex-court administrator Mea Fagiola and one-time contractor Carrie Kennedy are accused of racketeering, theft and other felonies involving $168,000 in grant money that allegedly paid for work that was not performed.
A fourth person, former contractor James Bush Jr., pleaded guilty weeks ago to conspiracy to defraud the state and theft by deception and was sentenced to two years probation, avoiding the risk of a maximum prison sentence of 20 years if he had gone to trial on the racketeering charge.
“They were being paid for work they had not produced,” said Superior Court Administrator Tom Charron, Murphree’s boss. “As we got deeper and deeper, we found numerous payments to numerous people adding up to a considerable amount of money.”
It appeared, Charron said, “the lines started to become blurred” between the court and Reconnecting Families, which was providing tutors to juveniles and their parents studying for GEDs, operating a clothes closet inside the court and helping families with rent.
The indictment issued in December alleges that Fagiola paid contract therapist Kennedy and contractor Bush, who supervised juveniles on probation, for work they had not done. Fagiola is also accused of fabricating records to support those payments that came out of state grant money.
Fagiola did not receive any of the money, and she has said she was only trying to spend the $168,000 detailed in the criminal charges before the court lost the money when the grant expired. She expected the work to be done at some point but feared there would not be funds to pay for it if the contracted duties were completed in time.
As for Ponder, the indictment said she worked on projects for Reconnecting Families at times when she was being paid for part-time contract work for the court.
Ken Hodges, Fagiola’s and Ponder’s lawyer, said criminal charges are not deserved.
Hodges said Fagiola did not profit and only signed off on payments to contractors. He added that Ponder was a poor record-keeper and the problem came about “because the mission of Reconnecting Families and the mission of the juvenile Court sometimes intersected.”
“It may have been a rule violation, but it was not theft,” Hodges said. “My clients did nothing wrong.”
Kennedy’s lawyer could not be reached for comment.
‘Devastating for our families’
While only the part-time executive director of Reconnecting Families was under investigation, the charity was still pulled into it when its computers and other records were seized.
Without its computers and records, the group couldn’t even begin raising money for its marquee programs that covered things like clothes and furniture for children and parents under court supervision, assistance with rent and utility bills and fees connected with taking the GED. The organization also couldn’t raise money for the multiple scholarships it awards each year to help with college and technical school expenses for parents trying to keep custody of their children.
The charity’s operation of a community garden — where families planted and harvested vegetables and herbs — was also affected.
Last October, Reconnecting Families cancelled its Shop for a Cause fundraiser, which br ought business to one place where Christmas shoppers could find gifts. Next, the charity called off its holiday Adopt a Family project, which matched donors to families.
The Cobb business community noticed. Donations stopped coming.
“That’s been devastating for our families,” said Juvenile Court Judge Juanita Steadman. “They don’t have the kind of resources most of us have. Reconnecting Families became those resources.”
There were a number of pointed letters and emails exchanged over the fall and into December between Gaither of Reconnecting Families and Murphree about the charity’s role.
Gaither questioned the reason for the change in the relationship between the nonprofit and the court. She complained that the criminal investigation cost the charity financial support from the business community that it had long enjoyed.
”We cannot fathom why our organization is being singled out … and cannot help but wonder what personal enmity or ambition is motivating the actions of Superior Court administration and the Cobb County District Attorney’s Office,” Gaither wrote in a 13-page letter to the chief juvenile court judge.
She also detailed the history of her group’s relationship with the court, as well as the shoddy treatment she believed Reconnecting Families received.
“It is indeed a regrettable negative situation that we have all been placed in due to circumstances, practices and conduct of at least one juvenile court employee,” Murphree wrote in response to Gaither’s emails.
Charron, meanwhile, made clear he supported Murphree, writing that she “has performed her duties for the court with thoroughness, objectivity and integrity.”