Leaked documents point to misallocation of federal funds at tribal group

The week before Christmas the Association of Village Council Presidents abruptly laid off 30 employees — about 7 percent of its workforce. In a press release, AVCP cited current economic trends. But the lay-off put scrutiny on the organization’s finances.

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Association of Village Council Presidents’ 51st Annual Conference. (Dean Swope/ KYUK)

Confidential documents shared with KYUK-Bethel show a pattern of financial mismanagement. They show federal funds that were supposed to help disadvantaged families were instead used to fund administrative salaries and workforce programs, like AVCP’s flight school.

Specifically in question are federal funds allocated to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families fund, or TANF. The purpose of the Dept. of Health and Human Services’ TANF program is to help economically disadvantaged families.

Email transcripts from 2008 show then-AVCP grants compliance officer Hansel Mathlaw raising concerns after a financial report showed that 25 percent of the salary of AVCP’s social services director, Pat Samson, was coming from TANF funds.

Samson didn’t work for the TANF program, but an AVCP vice president at the time responded to Mathlaw’s concerns saying, “He [Pat Samson] has done a lot of TANF work.”

Documents show Samson’s salary was more than $96,000 at the time.

Samson left AVCP a few years ago, citing exhaustion. He’d worked for the department for more than two decades. He says he didn’t recall working for any TANF programs and wasn’t aware of how his salary was paid for.

Then, in 2009, AVCP president Myron Naneng and the nonprofit’s senior chairman formally requested the organization use up to “$500,000 each year in TANF funds to sustain” the corporation’s aircraft maintenance and flight school.”

John Amik asking for flight school money

That request was denied by a federal official, according to former AVCP TANF director Jolene Geerhart.

But between 2010 and 2011, at least three checks totaling $250,000 each went from the AVCP TANF account to the flight school anyway.

Minutes from a 2010 board meeting show that John Amik, the flight school’s director, asked the board for the funds. According to minutes, he said the money “would allow funding to be spent and not returned to the federal government. This falls in line with the economic development requirement under this grant.”

In 2010, AVCP’s former vice president of finance wrote in an email that the, “federal TANF agency has reimbursed AVCP for the funds, and that the monies will cover operational costs that student revenue won’t cover.”

But federal directors repeatedly told AVCP administrators that TANF monies couldn’t be used to fund the flight school’s operating costs.

Geerhart was the AVCP TANF program director from 2010 to 2013. She says during her time, at least two of these checks to the flight school were signed.

“There were checks that [were] made out, but I didn’t authorize those monies,” Geerhart said. She said she started digging into previous years, and estimates the amount of TANF money taken to fund the flight school is much higher than $750,000.

“What I found,” Geerhart said, “…It was a little more than a million dollars while I was the director. It was $500,000 total, two separate times.”

Geerhart says it’s pretty hard to misuse federal TANF grant money — there are extensive trainings and even annual conferences directors can attend.

“I’m pretty sure the past director and deputy director would’ve advised them the correct use of TANF monies,” Geerhart said. “The TANF program has been with AVCP since 2000, or shortly before that.”

Email transcripts show AVCP came under scrutiny for allocating TANF funds to its flight school. In one case, $246,000 of TANF money appropriated to the school was pulled, prompting management to discuss other ways of shoring up the flight school’s bottom line — like hiking tuition.

Geerhart says she repeatedly raised concerns about the use of TANF monies to her superiors, Naneng and AVCP vice president Mike Hoffman. In one particular meeting with Naneng, Geerhart says he dismissed her concerns.

“I really didn’t appreciate that kind of response because my concerns, to me, were really important misuse of TANF monies,” she said.

Naneng declined multiple interview requests, instead opting to refer all questions to Hoffman. Hoffman declined to comment as well.

On a different occasion, Geerhart says she was asked to resubmit a request to use TANF funds to cover the flight school’s operating costs. When a federal TANF representative told her the funds couldn’t be used that way, she applied for funds to cover school tuition for TANF-eligible students.

Email transcripts show that this is allowed — to use TANF funds to financially support an eligible student through flight school — but Geerhart says when she looked over the paperwork, the numbers didn’t add up. The TANF funds taken didn’t match the number of TANF-eligible students in the program.

Geerhart was fired from AVCP for insubordination in early 2013.

“I continued to let my supervisor know these are inappropriate uses and it needs to stop. I believe I was terminated because I didn’t stop and keep my mouth quiet and walk away and let it continue to happen,” Geerhart said.

TANF fund commandments

Later that year, the flight school, which had been open for about a decade, shut down due to what Naneng described as “diminished federal funding and high operational costs.”

A spokesman from the federal TANF departments says they are not currently investigating AVCP regarding the misuse of funds. They did not respond to further questions.

Now, less than a year after Naneng’s re-election as AVCP president, leaders from four village tribes — Akiak, Akiakchak, Kwethluk and Tuluksak — are calling for a special meeting ahead of the annual conference, an investigation into AVCP, and for the organization’s top directors to be placed on administrative leave.

Mike Williams is the leader of the Yuiit Nation, and helped draft the resolution.

“They need more explanation [for the lay-offs] rather than [saying it’s] because of economic conditions,” Williams said. He says tribes just want to see the region working together.

If there’s no response from AVCP by Jan. 15, the resolution calls for Naneng’s resignation. Williams says the tribal leaders who filed the resolution are still waiting to hear back.