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Sacramento Association for the Retarded nonprofit's demise leaves trail of questions

Sacramento Association for the Retarded nonprofit's demise leaves trail of questions

December 01, 2009

First of two parts

A venerable local nonprofit, known for years as the Sacramento Association for the Retarded, quietly and without warning closed its doors this summer. The organization heads to bankruptcy court next week.

While the closure shocked some advocates, warning signs were visible for years to anyone watching closely.

Beginning in 1950, SAR had been a local beacon for guardians of children with mental retardation and developmental disabilities, helping them with everything from transportation to legal advice. A Who’s Who of local politicians gathered annually at the organization’s awards banquets. A school in Elk Grove, Jesse Baker Elementary, was named after one of the founders.

“It’s just so tragic they went down,” said Maureen Fitzgerald, a member of Sacramento County’s Developmental Disabilities Planning and Advisory Council. “It was an institution.”

Questions about the organization’s spending practices abounded in recent years, a Bee investigation has found, as the nonprofit provided fewer and fewer services to its clients while a larger share of its charitable contributions went to the group’s leaders and their families.

At the end of 2007 the nonprofit reported $894,173 in total assets and $121,212 in liabilities, according to tax documents. In its bankruptcy filing, the nonprofit claims to have $178,922 in assets and $345,789 in liabilities. Controlling for inflation, that would mean assets dropped about 80 percent in less than two years.

Court and internal documents, board reports and interviews also show:

  • Less than a quarter of the money the nonprofit spent in 2007 went to programs and services for the developmentally disabled. After adjusting for inflation, total spending on program services was almost 88 percent less that year than in 1999. At the same time, management and general expenses rose almost 46 percent.
  • One of the largest grants in SAR’s history – $128,303 – was awarded in 2006 to the sister of the nonprofit’s executive director, for a project that benefited the board president and was never completed.
  • Money went to family members of the nonprofit’s leadership, including another board president’s mother, who was hired as executive director. In the first six months this year alone, mother and son charged almost $18,000 in expenses to the nonprofit – more than the total $15,000 in grants that the nonprofit gave out in 2007.
  • The organization’s main source of revenue, a local thrift store company, refused to renew its contract with the nonprofit in 2008, saying SAR had failed to provide adequate audited financial documents. Without that contract, the nonprofit’s revenue dropped considerably.
  • Frustrated advocates for the disabled say they have complained to the state attorney general’s office to no avail.

    Roger Chapman, also on the county’s Developmental Disabilities Planning and Advisory Council, filed a formal complaint with the attorney general in January, according to a copy of the complaint he provided to The Bee. Others interviewed for this story said they also had contacted the state’s top watchdog.

    A spokeswoman for the attorney general said the office is not investigating SAR and doesn’t release information on complaints.

    Those who mourn the nonprofit’s passing hope more answers will emerge as the bankruptcy hearings begin early next month.

    “I don’t know how much was mismanagement, inadequate management or something wrong,” said Fitzgerald of the developmental disabilities panel. “There’s too much smoke. There were too many questionable happenings.”

    Mission Falters

    In September 1950, when local activists and parents founded the Sacramento Association for Mentally Retarded Children, “parents could do nothing but have their children in church basements tying paper together,” Fitzgerald said. “SAR was part of that trailblazing advocacy.”

    (The organization changed its name last year to the more politically correct Service Advocacy Respect for Persons with MR/DD, but retained the acronym SAR.)