Metro Health Dept. Under Fire For Mismanaging Grants - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

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Metro Health Dept. Under Fire For Mismanaging Grants

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by Ben Hall
Investigative Reporter

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Metro Public Health Department is conducting a comprehensive review of every state and federal grant it oversees, NewsChannel 5 has learned.

It comes after regulators found problems with how the department managed two different grants.

State regulators required the health department to return tens of thousands of dollars, and federal regulators briefly put another grant on hold.

The Metro Health Department oversees more than $25 million in grants, which is about half the department's total budget.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates discovered the health department tried to use grant money to pay for things that were not part of the original grant proposals including gift cards, entertainment and meals.

Earlier this year, state regulators forced the department to return more than $50,000 from a grant designed to prevent diabetes by getting kids active.

The health department contracted with the Nashville-based National Step Show Alliance to put on dance competitions.

But auditors found that the non-profit dance organization billed for inappropriate expenses.

Among the unauthorized items paid for with the grant money: $3,379 for an Apple laptop, $928 for an iPad and thousands of dollars in gift cards and meals.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked the health department's director, Dr. Bill Paul, "How did all this get paid for if it was not appropriate?"

"I think we were not doing the job we needed to do," Paul answered.

Paul admitted the Metro Health Department made mistakes managing that grant.

Metro is now trying to get the money back from the dance company.

"So right now, Metro has to pay this money?" we asked.

"Right now, Metro is out the money," Paul said. He added, "I think there are many lessons learned from this."

But those lessons were not learned before the U.S. Department of Human Services sent a blistering letter last month -- involving another grant.

It blasted the Metro Health Department for "poor performance" and "failure to ensure adequate fiscal oversight" of a $4.5 million grant designed to help dads in at risk areas become better fathers.

"To have a federal agency use language like this, clearly, we have a situation we have to deal with," Dr. Paul said.

Federal auditors cited numerous expenses that were outside the scope of the grant.

The expenses included more than $1,000 for entertainment -- like trips to Nashville Shores, $5,000 for van rentals and more than $2,000 for lost kayaks.

"Unfortunately, we lost a couple of kayaks," Paul said. "Now, obviously, we took a risk by taking these young dads out on a kayak for a team building thing."

Metro Health Department e-mails show the project manager of the fatherhood grant seemed willing to submit bills to regulators hoping they would be covered by the grant.

He told the an employee at Martha O'Bryan Center to "submit an invoice" for a $10,000 alarm system "and we will see" if the grant pays for it.

The Martha O'Bryan Center worked with the health department on the fatherhood grant, but was a subcontractor and relied on the health department to explain what could be paid for and what was out of bounds.

"You don't submit things because you think they might fit.  You get clarification on that. And it was our understanding that was the process in which they were proceeding," said Marsha Edwards, president and CEO of the Martha O'Bryan Center.

Edwards said the health department also told them the grant would pay $29,000 to renovate the center's gym floor, because Martha O'Bryan had not charged any rent to house the fatherhood program.

Federal regulars later determined the grant would not pay to renovate the center's floor.

"We rely on the Department of Health to tell us what is appropriate and what is not," Edwards said.

She said the non-profit found other money to finish the floor renovation.

Dr. Paul said he felt bad that Martha O'Bryan was given bad information.

"We had some communication issues, and I don't want to see that happen again," he added.

We tried to contact the National Step Show Alliance, but they did not respond.

Metro has filed a lawsuit against the organization to get the money back.

Email: bhall@newschannel5.com

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