Brenda McDuffie
Brenda McDuffie

Investigative Post: Buffalo Urban League Audit

by / Jan. 13, 2016 2am EST

It’s been a long wait for the eight whistleblowers whose concerns about their former employer, the Buffalo Urban League, prompted the Erie County Comptroller to audit a million-dollar county contract held by the agency. 

Now, it looks as if consequences could be on the horizon for the beleaguered social services agency. 

An online petition calling on the Erie County Legislature to hold the Buffalo Urban League accountable has garnered 119 signatures in two weeks. 

“It is time to demand action so that Erie County’s most vulnerable population will no longer be victimized by an agency that receives millions of taxpayer money,” wrote Susan Looby, the former Urban League caseworker who started the petition.

The petition comes after a recent audit by the Erie County Comptroller found extensive problems with the Urban League’s handling of a county contract to provide social services to families whose children are at risk of being removed due to allegations of abuse and neglect.  

The audit, released last month, found problems including fraudulent billing, a lack of training for staff, and a failure to keep confidential records secure—bearing out concerns raised by eight whistleblowers over a year ago. All eight have since left the agency.

The petition also calls for the ouster of Urban League president Brenda McDuffie and a restructuring of the organization’s board of directors.

McDuffie and board president Michael Reville, meanwhile, have written to the Challenger community newspaper taking issue with the audit’s findings. They say claims the agency knowingly overbilled the county and retaliated against employees who spoke out are “false and harmful assertions that we categorically reject.”

“We are disappointed with the content and tone of the report,” they wrote, arguing that auditors “wildly exaggerated” the dollar amounts by which the Urban League overbilled the county.

“Their story doesn’t add up,” said Bryan Fiume, the comptroller’s chief of staff. “Everything in that letter is bogus.”

Fiume said the audit’s findings are “not the Comptroller’s opinion, but a review of allegations made by their own employees, and we found a basis for those allegations.”

He added: “Why didn’t they fix these things when their own employees raised concerns?”

The Urban League reimbursed the county Department of Social Services $20,300 in March for the amount it had overbilled and no longer owes the county any money. 

Legislators will consider the audit’s findings on January 28, during a meeting of the Finance and Management Committee, which is open to the public. 

“I hope members of the Buffalo Urban League will come with an explanation, contrition, or an attitude that they will fix the problems,” said Legislator Joseph Lorigo, chair of the committee, who stressed that the audit “was not a political witch hunt.”

“No one’s looking to take down an agency or eliminate county funding,” Lorigo said. “But you can’t have improper billing and continue to get away with it.”

Looby, the former caseworker, said: “We would like to see the Erie County Legislators take immediate action. There needs to be more oversight with all these county contracts.”