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She was in San Diego to learn how to protect abuse victims. Instead, Candida Manion went wine tasting.
Federal funds paid Manion’s salary as executive director of the Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. In September 2019, they covered her flights, lodging and meals for the Summit on Violence, Abuse and Trauma Across the Lifespan.
Rather than learning more about prosecuting child abusers and treating batterers, Manion skipped a day of conference sessions to sip wine with an employee.
Federal auditors uncovered a pattern of improper and irresponsible spending under Manion that included conference trips to Southern California and Florida. Money intended to support Oklahoma shelters, crisis centers and victims was spent on employee and board member vacations.
A federal audit shows that on Manion’s watch, the Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault squandered or mismanaged $886,495 awarded by the Office on Violence Against Women from 2015 to 2020. That’s 98% of the grant money spent by the coalition during those five years.
Though Manion and her employee paid for the wine-tasting trip to Temecula, the June report shows she spent nearly $239,499 on travel during the period scrutinized by auditors — more than triple the coalition’s budget.
Every six months, the Inspector General’s office provides an audit report to Congress. The most recent report includes the Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault audit and 40 others. Of the money questioned by auditors, the Oklahoma nonprofit’s total amount was the third highest and far exceeded the other four programs receiving money from the Office on Violence Against Women.
The findings jeopardize critical aid for Oklahoma women and their children, who suffer abuse at a rate nearly twice the national average, according to the latest Kids Count report. During the pandemic, state domestic violence incidents reached their highest level in at least 20 years, the most recent Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation data shows.
The U.S. Department of Justice could pursue criminal charges as it did in a recent case involving a similar nonprofit organization in Montana.
The Office on Violence Against Women could force the Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault to repay some or all of the funds. It could forgive the full amount. It could suspend or ban the coalition from receiving future grant money, making it even more difficult for Oklahoma victims to find justice and safety.
“We don’t have enough shelters, we don’t have enough staff and we don’t have enough money to go around,” Manion said during a town hall meeting in Norman in 2019. “So, we have to leverage our resources in the community to get the work done.”
Manion was fired early last year.
Employees of the Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault are in police stations counseling law enforcement on how to talk to victims. They’re at shelters delivering masks and designing COVID-19 protocols. They’re on the phone searching for an empty bed. They’re at the Capitol advocating for victim rights and access to services. They spend a week each year certifying victim advocates across the state so shelter directors like Latricia Kippers can keep their doors open.
“We can’t do this work alone, by ourselves, and be effective,” said Kippers, who runs New Directions in Lawton. “So losing that coalition and that resource for guidance and training and accreditations and all of that would not be good. I don’t know what else to say but it would really be a disservice to shelters across Oklahoma.”
Frequency of Travel Questioned
When board members hired Manion in June 2014, they lauded her grant management skills and oversight of millions in grant funding as the supervisor of tobacco prevention programs for the Norman Regional Health System.
At the Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, Manion made at least $60,000 a year and controlled an annual budget of $450,000 to $650,000, according to income tax reports. Federal funds made up most of the nonprofit’s revenue, which are supplemented with membership fees paid by victim service programs.
Over several weeks, Oklahoma Watch called and sent texts to Manion, 49, and her attorney requesting an interview for this story. They did not respond.
Manion used coalition money to send board members to conferences in exchange for looking the other way when it came to her spending, according to allegations in documents obtained by Oklahoma Watch. The coalition’s former office coordinator, Jamie Bond, booked reservations in Orlando for one board member who stayed in a hotel at Disney World with her family. Bond described the trip as a kickback.
In one case, auditors discovered Manion reimbursed herself for the cost of a hotel based on the reservation amount. But the hotel invoice showed the cost to be $465 less than the amount she was paid.
In another, funds designated to victim services paid for the cost of hotel rooms for Manion and the coalition’s former bookkeeper, Kim Wynn. Auditors described those charges as in-town expenses and in defiance of federal guidelines because they were not for official business.
The coalition routinely used federal funds to send staff to in-state and out-of-state conferences. These grants allow for some travel. But the frequency and expense of Manion’s travel caught the attention of coalition board member Jan Peery.
“I can remember at one point thinking, ‘goodness, there’s a lot of travel, a lot of education going on,” said Peery, who is also the president and chief executive officer at the YWCA in Oklahoma City. “But I also knew she was new to this field.”
Manion had no professional experience working with abuse victims. It made sense to Peery for Manion to seek more education than past directors. And Manion did provide updates to the board about what she was learning, Peery said.
But Peery was unaware Manion was skipping full days of the conferences.
Manion sometimes spent the day sleeping in her hotel room instead of attending sessions, Bond said. Manion would call Bond around 3 p.m. to check in, saying that she had just woken up and was doing some work before going out to dinner and drinks with conference attendees, Bond said.
The state Attorney General’s office certifies programs the coalition supports, ensuring they follow state rules for reporting and meet its standards of care. Melissa Blanton, who leads the victim services unit, said she attended two out-of-state conferences with Manion and “we attended both of them fully together.”
Blanton said she was unaware of any financial trouble the coalition was experiencing until the audit report was released.
Manion was fired in February of 2021 and given two months of severance, according to documents obtained by Oklahoma Watch.
In a similar case last April, the board chairwoman of the nonprofit Montana Native Women’s Coalition was convicted of fraudulent travel claims and theft of public funds from the Office on Violence Against Women. The court sentenced her to four years of probation and ordered her to pay $29,114 in restitution. The coalition’s executive director and another board member pleaded guilty to theft of federal funds and received probation and were ordered to repay a combined $38,100.
‘Funds That Are Meant To Help Victims’
Auditors also found the coalition’s record keeping defied federal grant requirements.
Auditors questioned all of the money spent on staff pay and benefits, more than $526,000 because they “identified significant issues related to the reliability of the timesheets,” the report states.
Black binders, one for each fiscal year, contain timesheets for the coalition’s employees. Staff members were responsible for tracking their own hours and paid time off, and Manion for verifying their reports. But Manion’s signature was missing from years of timesheets.
After auditors emailed a final warning to Manion to provide documentation, she signed and back-dated some of the old timesheets, said Bond, who sent auditors copies of the timesheets before and after Manion signed them. Manion also created retroactive timesheets for her own hours and asked the nonprofit’s board chairman, Scott Mitchell, to sign them. He did.
Mitchell declined to comment on the incident.
“These are federal funds that are meant to help victims,” said Bond, who is a victim of childhood abuse and took a job at the coalition to help others like her. “And it’s just scary to me that someone could just come in and hold no regard for what that’s meant for.”
Bond said she quit her job at the coalition in December 2020 after the stress of the audit and “toxic” work environment became too much. The 31-year-old mother lives in Norman and now works for herself with no plans to return to victim services.
The coalition’s legislative liaison, Mackenzie Masilon, resigned two months later, though she has since returned as a contractor to work with lawmakers crafting legislation.
The subsequent resignation of the bookkeeper left ReJeania Tolliver, who trained victim advocates, as the coalition’s only remaining employee. Tolliver is now being prepared to take over as the coalition’s director after the audit is resolved.
Until then, Meline Epley, president of Elite HR Business Solutions, is the interim director. Epley’s company helps businesses in transition and conducts employment law violation and fraud-related investigations, according to her LinkedIn profile.
Board member Tracey Lyall, who is also the chief executive officer of Domestic Violence Intervention Services in Tulsa, is overseeing the new staff.
Lyall and Peery left the board a couple of years after Manion was hired during an effort to downsize and bring more community members onto the board. Prior to 2014, the board was made up of a representative from all of its member programs.
In Jan. 2021, Lyall and Peery agreed to rejoin the board at Mitchell’s request to help rebuild the coalition.
Lyall said they are working with auditors to salvage the coalition, though its future remains uncertain.
Board members have already approved new financial policies for the board and the coalition with help from Office on Violence Against Women auditors. A new requirement that the coalition director provide grant applications and budgets to the board will allow members to keep better tabs on spending, Peery said.
“You know, there’s always gonna be a way around safeguards if somebody’s intentionally doing something wrong,” Peery said. “But if you don’t have the safeguards there, it makes it a whole lot easier and it takes a lot longer before you catch it.”
Whitney Bryen is an investigative reporter and visual storyteller at Oklahoma Watch with an emphasis on domestic violence, mental health and nursing homes affected by COVID-19. Contact her at (405) 201-6057 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @SoonerReporter.