CLEVELAND -- Top executives at a non-profit agency that gets millions of taxpayer dollars to help pay for Head Start programs are rolling up big tabs on travel and other items even as pre-school teachers and others are being furloughed, a Channel 3 News investigation found.
The Council for Economic Opportunities in Greater Cleveland has shipped top execs to conferences in Las Vegas, San Francisco, Washington D.C. and Chicago since July at great expense, the station found.
The Las Vegas trip alone -- where 13 employees traveled to learn how to comply with federal regulations -- cost up to $50,000, insiders say.
It caught the attention of a federal regulator, who questioned the agency following the trip. "Given limited funding, any expenses in this area should be fully justified," he noted in an e-mail obtained by Channel 3 News.
The agency's board chairman, George Forbes, said the agency has complied with the law. But the powerful Democrat denied a public records request for documents on travel and other spending, even though 95 percent of the agency's operating fund comes from federal and state grants.
"We have taken the position that you're not entitled to them and I'm not going to give them to you," Forbes said. "The law says we don't have to (produce records) and I believe in following the law."
Ralph King, of the Cleveland Tea Party Patriots, said the agency is "thumbing their nose" at transparency.
"You would think that George Forbes, with his long-standing, upstanding role in the community, that he would want to be forthcoming," said King, a taxpayer watchdog.
"Put the federal money where your mouth is and show these people that you're doing the right thing by the children."
It's not just conference travel that's raising eyebrows at the CEOGC, which helps pay for almost 5,000 poor kids to attend preschool and day care each day.
Records reviewed by the Investigator Tom Meyer show that execs acted like high rollers during their desert stay.
CEO Jacqueline Middleton, who hauls in about $200,000 a year in salary and benefits, flew to Las Vegas three days before the conference, where she stayed at the plush Cosmopolitan hotel, the record show.
With time to kill, Middleton racked up $400 on clothes at Saks Fifth Avenue. She also plunked down $175 at a fancy restaurant. And she rented a car, at a cost of almost $1,000 for the week. It all went on the CEOGC credit card
Middleton defended the spending as necessary travel, adding that CEOGC did not pay for her shopping trip to Saks Fifth Avenue. As for the rental car, Middleton said it had to be big enough to hold everyone's luggage, even though the conference was located within walking distance of the hotel where the 13 staffers stayed.
This isn't the first time Middleton has come under fire for using the agency's credit card.
Five years ago, the Plain Dealer uncovered Middleton spending agency money on luxury hotels, Lincoln town cars, and pricey meals during trips to anti-poverty conferences.
She also purchased Coach tote bags and Tiffany gifts. Middleton ultimately reimbursed the agency for the funds.
"You're making assumptions and twisting the information to make you have a story," Middleton said.
Sunceriray Stallworth, whose son attends a Head Start preschool, said she doesn't buy the explanation.
"For them to be spending money like that, and it interfering with their education, I'm not taking that as an answer," Stallworth said.
Insiders also tell the station that at least one staffer brought her mother along on the trip, and received spa treatments at the hotel where they were staying. The bill was charged to CEOGC, the insiders say.
The agency declined to comment on what staffers did at the conference.
The spending spree is coming as CEOGC is furloughing staff, from Head Start teachers and classroom aides to managers and program monitors. It's also reeling from a federal report that criticized the agency for how it runs Head Start schools.
A U.S. Department of Health and Senior Services report cited CEOGC for enrolling only half of the children with diagnosed disabilities it's required to enroll under federal regulations.
Inspectors also cited the agency for not properly monitoring Head Start regulations and for finding broken glass, pools of standing water and metal screws sticking out of fence posts at Head Start playgrounds.
There was other questionable spending.
CEOGC Vice President Peggie Price spent $357 for a round-trip ticket to fly into and out of Chicago on the same day to simply to drop off a "document," according to a travel reimbursement form.
FedEx would have charged just $36 to get it there the next day.
Middleton said the vice president had to travel to Chicago in person to explain the document, which was related to the Head Start federal inspection.
CEOGC also purchased at least 25 iPads. Insiders say they were supposed to be for Head Start teachers to use during the school day. Instead, they say, at least 15 portable computers went to top execs at CEOGC and another 10 cannot be located. None went to Head Start teachers- as promised.
Middleton said the iPads, which she called necessary communication tools, were always intended for executives and not teachers.
King, of the Cleveland Tea Party Patriots, said there needs to be more openness so taxpayers can be sure they got a good deal on the spending.
"We know how important it is for children to get a good education from the start, so if we're misspending dollars to start those building blocks...how are they ever going to improve?"