By Pru Sowers

An investigation by the Southernmost Homeless Assistance League (SHAL) into mismanagement charges against its former executive director found no truth to the accusations, according to Rick Casey, the new chairman of the organization.

Casey and newly-named interim Executive Director Elicia Pintabona appeared before Key West City Commissioners on Jan. 17 to respond to charges made by Mike Tolbert, the former director of the Keys Overnight Homeless Shelter (KOTS), who was fired in September for reopening the Stock Island shelter after Hurricane Irma without Miller’s approval. Tolbert had written a letter to city officials accusing Miller of multiple issues including mismanaging money allocated to purchase bus tickets for homeless residents to leave the island, unsanitary food preparation areas and unhealthy living conditions for residents.

City commissioners voted in November not to formally investigate Tolbert’s charges but asked the SHAL board of directors to look into the claims. At the Jan. 17 commission meeting, Casey said a SHAL executive committee “conducted a complete review” that included interviews with Miller, Tolbert and an unscheduled site visit to KOTS, the city’s homeless shelter on Stock Island which SHAL has managed for the past five years. The executive committee then met two more times to come to a conclusion.

Casey said Tolbert’s allegations fell into three categories, including Tolbert’s personal opinions about KOTS operations, “exaggerations,” and claims that lacked support or specifics.

“We didn’t find those to be accurate. We found that to be inaccurate,” Casey told the commission, referring to Tolbert’s letter, He added, “This is the unfortunate result of a termination, which occurs sometimes.”

As to the most serious charge made by Tolbert, that Miller misappropriated funds that were to be used to purchase one-way bus tickets for any KOTS client that wished to leave Key West, Casey said it was “absolutely, utterly false.” He said the annual audit done of KOTS financial operations made its regular report this fall and found nothing illegal or irregular.

“Our review included no irregularities and a copy was provided to the city. Their review indicated no irregularities,” Casey told Konk Life.

Although SHAL’s investigation cleared Miller, city Commissioner Sam Kaufman still put some hard questions to Casey and Pintabona at the meeting. Kaufman pointed to a reported 17 cases of scabies, a painful skin disease, at KOTS, asking Casey to assure the city that a similar outbreak will not occur again. But Casey said he could not give that assurance. KOTS cannot track specific health issues of its clients because of medical privacy laws, he said.

Kaufman also asked that KOTS develop new protocols to inform city officials and the police department when a homeless person who has accepted bus fare returns to Key West. Under the KOTS rule, if a person who has accepted a one-way bus ticket comes back, he or she cannot stay at KOTS or receive any SHAL services. Currently, there is a list of 340 people who fall into that category. Approximately 19 have returned to Key West and asked SHAL for help, Pintabona said, which SHAL has sometimes given out of compassion.

But Kaufman worried that if SHAL was not informing the Key West Police Department about former SHAL clients who had been banned from KOTS but returned to the city, there could be legal issues. By law, if a homeless person has been banned from KOTS and other local social service organizations, they cannot be arrested for sleeping outdoors, even in public places.

“There are arrests that are being made that may be unlawful because the Key West Police Department doesn’t know that person can’t return to KOTS,” Kaufman, a lawyer, said, adding that he had defended one such person.

Pintabona said she would be reviewing SHAL’s policies as part of her new job as interim executive director, including implementing some type of appeals process for clients banned from KOTS. She also said she hoped that the new management at SHAL would help the organization repair its relationships with the city and other area homeless assistance organizations.