larry-handfield_web.jpgProminent Miami attorney Larry Handfield has been selected as the new chairman of the board for one of the oldest and most venerable social service organizations in the country.

In June 2009, Handfield began charting the course for the James E. Scott Community Association (JESCA), a longstanding agency with a rich history of service, but a sullied reputation after years of mismanagement.

“JESCA is not going anywhere,’’ Handfield said. “I want to earn the reputation back…I want to reorganize the organization so that it really helps fill the gap, providing alternative schooling for our troubled kids, providing job-related services for ex-offenders who can’t get a job, providing meals and services for the elderly, and helping transition people into society.”

The agency has reportedly served more than 3,000 people through childcare centers, mentorships and a rehab center for homeless men.

Yet the agency’s finances have been the subject of much media scrutiny. In the early 1990s, The Miami Herald found that Archie Hardwick – who was director at that time – had nearly bankrupted the organization. The Herald reported that Hardwick spent money on mistresses, cars, jewelry and even a nose job. He was reportedly sentenced to 60 years in prison, where he died in 1997.

Following Hardwick’s departure from JESCA, County Commissioner Dorrin Rolle took over the leadership post; an irony that has been a sore sticking point for the agency, which is located in the commissioner’s district.

Conflict of interest concerns have hovered over Rolle’s leadership of the organization for years, culminating in his 2002 plea of no contest to ethics charges that he improperly lobbied county officials on his agency’s behalf.

The charges also alleged that Rolle had used his influence to have Miami-Dade County police provide security at a JESCA-related festival. For the infraction, Rolle paid a $750 fine imposed by the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics.

Another scandal that rose to the surface during Rolle’s tenure was the 2007 termination of a Miami-Dade School Board contract after board auditors discovered that the agency had accumulated more than $145,000 in returned check fees and that the board had overpaid JESCA by $114,000.

That the agency’s troubles do not extend beyond mismanagement was a major factor in Handfield’s decision to accept the post. Handfield, who is also the new chairman of the board of trustees at Bethune-Cookman University (BCU), his alma mater, said evidence of theft or other illegal improprieties at JESCA would have been deal breakers.  

“I would not be a part of anything where someone was…stealing money,” he said of JESCA’s highly publicized woes.

The agency was formerly headed by County Commissioner Dorrin Rolle, an irony that has been a sore sticking point for the agency, which is located in the commissioner’s district.

According to Handfield, Rolle stepped down as CEO in January 2008.  He acknowledged that the commissioner’s departure was a well-kept secret. Rolle did not respond to telephone and email messages seeking comment.

Handfield said the agency’s fiscal disasters will be things of the past.

“When I found out that it was a case of mismanagement, then those things can be corrected,” the Howard University Law School graduate and head of the Larry Handfield Law firm told the South Florida Times during a telephone interview.

“I want it more accountable, I want it to be more transparent, I want it to be integrity in the process,” he said of his wish list for JESCA.

Efforts to confirm the agency’s 2008-2009 budget (estimated to be $5 million), deficit figures and its current number of employees were unsuccessful.

When asked whether difficult decisions regarding streamlining the agency’s personnel and programs will be a factor in its transformation, Handfield replied swiftly and strongly.

“Absolutely. Those are the types of things that should have been [done] in the past. You’ve got to make painful, difficult decisions in order to see your way through it,” he said.

Even before assuming the board’s leadership role, as vice chair, Handfield quietly orchestrated necessary changes in the agency’s management team. Handfield has served on the board for seven years.

Essentially serving as acting board chair after then-chairman Wilbert “Tee” Holloway became a member of the Miami-Dade School Board in 2007, Handfield said he dispatched an oversight committee to scrutinize the agency’s operations, leading to high-level administrators being terminated.

Handfield’s reputation for transforming troubled public institutions precedes him.

“When I took over as chairman of the Public Health Trust at Jackson Hospital, we had a $155 million deficit, we had issues with the union, we were threatened with those potential layoffs to close that…deficit,” he said of the post he held from 1998 to 2006.

Leaving the medical facility with a $68 million surplus is an accomplishment that Handfield said exemplifies his response to challenges.

“I don’t walk away from challenges,” he said, adding that walking away from JESCA was out of the question.

He has given himself a limited time period to reform the agency.

“I figure that it’s going to take me at least a year to turn it around,” he explained.

Handfield’s fellow board members include attorneys, established business people and former social service executives.

Interim president and CEO Vincent Brown McGee is an attorney and was the previous executive director of the Metro Miami Action Plan Trust (MMAP), another troubled local agency. McGee could not be reached for comment.

Handfield’s penchant for managing multiple priorities will come in handy. On July 1, he will also assume the role of chairman of the board of trustees at BCU.

“I take this at a time when I also take over as chairman of BCU, the first graduate to be chair. That will be a big responsibility. I believe that I will be able to balance it appropriately,” he said. “When I was chairman of the public health trust, I was also chair of the police oversight board for the city of Miami.”

Handfield has thrown down the gauntlet on JESCA’s future. He said he plans to improve the agency’s foundation so that it can get back to doing what it was created to do.

Photo: Larry Handfield