FORT LAUDERDALE __ A nonprofit group of black elected officials committed no crime by raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in the name of college scholarships, then spending all but $15,000 of it on lavish annual galas, according to the Broward State Attorney’s Office.
After an eight-month investigation into alleged financial improprieties by the Broward Black Elected Officials, Inc., the State Attorney’s Office has closed its probe without filing criminal charges.
“The financial records for BBEO were subpoenaed and examined by forensic accountants for any improprieties,” Asst. State Attorney Michael Horowitz wrote in an Aug. 20 memo that closed out the investigation, which began on Dec. 14, 2007. “After examining the records there was no indication of any unlawful activity.’’
The investigation followed a South Florida Times report last year which revealed that the group in 2005 took in $145,675 that it solicited in the name of college scholarships, and spent $103,335.53 on an annual gala and related expenses.
“Once the financial records were subpoenaed and examined there was no indication of criminal activity,’’ Horowitz said in the memo. “The decision on how money is raised and spent by the BBEO is a decision left to the organization.’’
The State Attorney’s Office investigation began after one of the group’s former members, Lauderdale Lakes Commissioner John Billingsley, raised questions about what he viewed as financial improprieties by the group’s former president, fellow Lauderdale Lakes Commissioner Levoyd Williams.
Billingsley told prosecutors he was concerned about the amount of money the group spent on its annual galas, and its inability to provide financial records for members’ inspection, according to the State Attorney’s Office memo.
Prosecutors subpoenaed Billingsley to provide a sworn statement about his concerns. Sworn statements were also taken from Williams and Joseph Angelo, who was the group’s treasurer.
As prosecutors continued their investigation, Williams decided last year not to seek re-election.
Neither Williams nor the group’s current president, Lauderhill Commissioner Margaret Bates, could be reached for comment.
The BBEO is a non-profit organization that consists of current and former black politicians from all over Broward County.
In previous interviews with the newspaper, Williams said the group’s primary focus was on education initiatives and raising money for scholarships.
Documents reveal that the group also took political positions on issues in the county, apparently in violation of Internal Revenue Service rules governing non-profit organizations.
The Broward Times, which has since changed its name to the South Florida Times, began looking into the BBEO after David Shomers, a white Lauderdale Lakes commissioner, accused the group of denying him membership because of his race.
Shomers was later accepted into the group, but resigned following reports of the group’s alleged improprieties.
The newspaper also reported last year that Williams ran the group’s operations — including the use of city staff to solicit donations and plan the organization’s events – in Lauderdale Lakes City Hall, at taxpayers’ expense.
Shortly after the newspaper reports, several members of the group, including Broward County School Board member Phyllis Hope, resigned and distanced themselves from the organization.
Many BBEO members began requesting access to the group’s financial records, but Williams refused. He also did not immediately provide copies of the BBEO’s Internal Revenue Service tax returns.
When he did finally release the returns, they were found to contain numerous errors.
Amid those controversies, and increasing concerns about exactly how the scholarship donations had been used, more members resigned.
Some former members of the BBEO continue to have concerns about the group, despite the State Attorney’s Office conclusions.
“No. I won’t be getting involved with them again, unless the books are transparent and everything is done in the open,” Hope said upon learning of the outcome of the investigation. “They have new leadership, and maybe some good will come out of that, but at this time, I still don’t know enough about what happened.’’
Pictured above is Lauderdale Lakes Commissioner Levoyd Williams.