FORT LAUDERDALE — The former director of a county agency designed to help poor, disabled and elderly people pay their utility bills and become self-sufficient has been convicted of falsifying government records following a 13-month probe.
Jacqueline Kassower, 56, former director of Broward County’s Community Action Agency (CAA) has reached a plea agreement with the Broward State Attorney’s Office in which she agreed to plead guilty to falsifying the documents in exchange for a reduced sentence.
As a condition of her plea agreement, Kassower was required to pay $273 in court costs, but will not serve any time behind bars for the crime.
The documents in question are minutes of CAA board meetings that never took place. The move was an apparent attempt to convince the state Department of Community Affairs that the local agency was fulfilling its duties, when in fact it was not.
The issue first came to light when the state DCA issued a report in 2007 which found that the local agency failed to distribute nearly $2 million in state and federal funding to people in need.
“After completing this investigation, Ms. Kassower was formally charged on Aug. 27, 2008 with the misdemeanor crime of Falsifying Records,” Assistant State Attorney David Schulson wrote in a March 30, 2009 close-out memo.
“On March 20, 2009, Ms. Kassower entered a plea of No Contest via a Plea in Absentia as she currently resides in Las Vegas, NV,” Schulson wrote.
Kassower is now working as program director for a community-based, non-profit organization in Las Vegas. She did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Schulson said Kassower is having financial difficulties, and was not able to pay the fine until recently. The case is now closed.
On July 28, 2008, Schulson traveled to Las Vegas to take a statement from Kassower. She admitted fabricating the records, but did not implicate others in the crime.
“She was having some financial problems, and didn’t have the funds to travel here, and she did not have the funds to hire an attorney, so I just got on a plane and went out to Vegas,” Schulson said.
The CAA administers federal Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) programs that help people with low incomes attain the skills, knowledge and motivation to become self-sufficient.
The CAA also manages the county’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which provides grants to local governments and non-profit agencies to help low-income households meet the cost of home heating and cooling.
Prosecutors say $739,000 of the $1,504,000 grant from the state in fiscal year 2006 for the CSBG program went unspent, and was returned to the state.
The State Attorney’s Office also determined that $882,000 of the $3,407,000 LIHEAP grant money in fiscal year 2006 remained unspent, and was also returned to the state.
The CAA’s offices were located at Northwest 31st Avenue and West Sunrise Boulevard, just west of Fort Lauderdale, until Hurricane Wilma damaged the building when it struck on Oct. 24, 2005.
Kassower told prosecutors that the hurricane damage caused staff members to be displaced to several different buildings throughout the county, disrupting operations and limiting their ability to administer services.
In the face of an audit by the Florida Department of Community Affairs in 2006, Kassower panicked and began fabricating meeting minutes in an attempt to mislead state officials into believing that the agency had in fact been carrying out its duties, according to the State Attorney’s Office.
An unidentified staff person in the CAA tipped off state officials about the fabricated records.
The audit’s findings were detailed in a scathing Dec. 17, 2007 report from the DCA, which also found that the agency’s board of directors, whose members are responsible for how the money is administered, failed to hold the required meetings for more than two years prior to August 2007.
The criminal investigation began when community activist Joe Major of Lauderhill filed a complaint after reading about the situation, which was published in the Feb. 8, 2008 edition of the South Florida Times.
That published report also stated that the agency was forced to return to the state nearly $2 million in 2005 and 2006, due to the CAA’s failure to disburse the funds to those in need during the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma.
Even though county department heads told prosecutors that Kassower was given the option of being fired or taking retirement when confronted about the doctored records, her personnel file, as well as statements from senior managers, shows that she actually retired from her $50,165 job on Sept. 6, 2007 without any such options, or employment consequences.
“Part of my investigation was also to make a determination whether any money had been taken; had been stolen, and I found absolutely no evidence Ms. Kassower or anyone from the agency had taken any state or federal funds,” Schulson said.
Photo: Jacqueline Kassower