Sunshine urged to open books

WARREN – Financial information about Warren Development Corp., a private, nonprofit organization formed in 1996 to rehabilitate homes, was included in the city’s 2002 audit.

The inclusion came following a request by then-Warren City Councilman James Pugh for a closer look into the funding of the Westlawn housing demolition project.

At issue was a partnership Warren Development had with the city to purchase and demolish approximately 75 dilapidated buildings in the Westlawn neighborhood and whether the city was required to reimburse the organization the roughly $750,000 it spent on the project.

John Taylor and Clyde Cole – two founding members of Warren Development – used their own money to purchase the properties and tear down the houses with a promise the city would reimburse them the entire cost.

This year, several members of City Council, Trumbull County commissioners and others have sent requests to state Auditor Dave Yost’s office to audit Sunshine of Warren Trumbull Area Inc. – also a private nonprofit – due to questions about its finances, including more than $150,000 in back taxes owed to the county.

Those arguing for the audit suggest because Sunshine was created by Warren and Trumbull County and because many of the homes purchased by Sunshine were done so using federal grant money the state can do the audit in spite of Sunshine’s status.

From 1992 through mid-2012, Sunshine received about $4.25 million in federal funding, according to Community Development Director Michael Keys. The majority of the funds were awarded from 1992 to 2003.

Sunshine Executive Director Anthony J. Iannucci Jr. has maintained that as a private nonprofit, Sunshine is not subject to open record laws. Warren Law Director Greg Hicks has said he concurs with Iannucci.

Mayor Doug Franklin last month said he is considering having the city’s financial relations with Sunshine given special scrutiny by the state as it prepares the city’s annual audit.

The auditor’s office has said it will review any requests.

Taylor said recently that he didn’t give a second thought to providing the financial information to the state.

“I asked how quickly they wanted it,” Taylor said. “When you are called by the state auditor, you provide them with what they are asking. I gave them every piece of paper we had.”

The audit found no wrongdoing but did note that the city was not able to provide appraisal information on the Westlawn properties it purchased from Warren Development.

“WDC indicated this was not a reimbursement, but WDC was simply selling property to the city,” the report stated.

Henry Angelo, who was Warren’s mayor at the time, said the agreement with Warren Development was “not in writing, but through a handshake. It enabled the city to review all documents, all costs, all purchases – everything, to ensure that when the city bought the property from WD, it would not pay one penny more that it spent to buy and demolish all the properties.”

With that experience in mind, Angelo now questions why Sunshine’s leadership doesn’t agree to have an audit done to clear up questions about its financial issues.

“There is absolutely no reason for Sunshine not to have an audit done,” Angelo said. “First, public money is involved. In spite of the contention that the agency is not subject to some audit rules, the overused word ‘transparency’ in government is the hallmark of an open honest agency or entity.”

Angelo said not answering the public’s questions or agreeing to a public audit only raises suspicions.

“In the public’s eyes, if there are no problems, why not share the information and have the finances audited?” he said.