Upper Darby pays back over $40,000 spent on toy drives, holiday dinners

Upper Darby Township paid back just over $40,000 in community-development grant money to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to a letter sent to local officials last month.

The revelations are a black eye not only for the administration of former Mayor Barbarann Keffer (D), but also for the administration of new Mayor Ed Brown (D), given that it was Brown’s charity which benefited from the inappropriate spending.

HUD determined the funds from its Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program were used for “ineligible expenses” in 2022-23, including toys, Chromebook laptops and gift cards for charitable giveaways. CDBG typically assists communities with projects like public-facility improvements and housing construction. It’s not uncommon for the grant money to be turned over to a nonprofit that will carry out the township’s plans, but in this case the money was spent improperly.

In a May 14 report to the township, HUD instructed the municipality to either repay the money or to justify it with documentation, e.g. receipts or invoices.

Earlier this year, Broad + Liberty investigative reporter Todd Shepherd asked HUD to comment on the toy expenditures. HUD’s May letter said it began its review “in response to a reporter’s inquiry… regarding toy purchases….”

HUD gave the township one month to comply after that letter was sent. This outlet obtained the document via the federal Freedom of Information Act.

In a June 28 memo to Brown and Township Council, Upper Darby’s Community and Economic Development Director Rita LaRue said the township issued full repayment. The township also canceled $60,500 in projects associated with the nonprofit Men of Action Brothers of Faith which utilized the items in question. Men of Action’s website names Brown as its president.

Brown did not respond to a request for comment.

Broad + Liberty received the June memo from a source in township government. It states the money for canceled future projects will become available for eligible items.

HUD’s May 14 letter to township Administrative Services Director Scott Alberts stated Upper Darby already admitted the township incorrectly spent $5,858.75 on gift cards for holiday giveaway events in 2022 and 2023. 

Township resident John DeMasi filed his own right-to-know request and uncovered a receipt showing $5,383.75 of that money was spent on a total of 75 gift cards in December 2022. The receipt named Brown as the contact for the recipient, Men of Action. 

The agency said the administration agreed to return the $5,858.75. But the larger $40,309.44 remained at issue until last month.

“HUD staff reviewed vouchers, applications, agreements and other documentation provided by the Township and its consultant, Dunleavy Associates,” HUD Office of Community Planning and Development Acting Director Ronnie Legette wrote. “Upon review, it was determined that funds were spent on ineligible activities.”

Last year, spending on the Annual Family Holiday Giveaway, which Men of Action hosts, caught the attention of Councilwoman Laura Wentz (I-At Large), a former Democrat, as well as former Council President Brian Burke (D-At Large). Burke unsuccessfully ran for mayor against Brown as a Republican last year, calling attention to what he considers fiscal mismanagement by the Democrats who run the township.

Democratic Upper Darby Treasurer David Haman joined Wentz in examining the municipal credit-card statements of Brown’s predecessor Barbarann Keffer (D), then township Chief Administrative Officer Vince Rongione and Rongione deputy Alison Dobbins. Wentz said Keffer made no purchases, but those made by the other two raised red flags.

The councilwoman questioned the municipality spending about $6,000 on toys for the 2021 holiday giveaway, voicing her view that the purchases were improperly documented. The councilwoman furthermore took issue with a Target receipt for a $153 hoverboard, an outsized expense compared with most of the other toys which generally cost between $10 and $20 each.

Wentz mentioned she found it irregular that the township bought the items and sought reimbursement on behalf of a nonprofit. She said she believes HUD’s usual practice is to reimburse the nonprofit.

The agency also wrote that Upper Darby used CDBG money to buy Chromebook laptops which would then be given away to families who completed Men of Action’s technology workshops. HUD additionally noted the township spent CDBG funds on a community holiday dinner.

“…The purchase of computers/Chromebooks, food, and other supplies might be eligible if they were a cost incurred for an eligible public service activity,” Legette wrote. “However, toy giveaways and the provision of holiday meals are not, in and of themselves, eligible public service activities.”

Wentz said she is glad to see the township pay back HUD, though she lamented the cost the payback entails.

“I’m glad they’re doing the right thing and returning the money,” she said. “I’m a little concerned that taxpayers are footing the bill for returning the funds…. I’m not sure where it’s coming from within the budget.”

I’m glad they’re doing the right thing and returning the money. I’m a little concerned that taxpayers are footing the bill for returning the funds…. I’m not sure where it’s coming from within the budget.

Councilwoman Laura Wentz

Haman expressed displeasure at receiving no documentation from Men of Action itemizing what it received from the township. He said he believed Upper Darby ultimately took proper action regarding HUD funds, though he suggested township personnel issues may remain unresolved.

“I commend the mayor and the administration for doing the right thing,” he said. “But are they still going to hold the people who are still working for them accountable?”

Haman serves largely in an oversight capacity and said expenditures like those made with CDBG funds are not submitted to the township treasurer. In a text message to Broad + Liberty regarding the initial HUD findings, he opined that the manner in which taxpayer money is spent should be a grave public concern in Upper Darby.

“The administrators and councilpersons who see corruption but do nothing about it, and worse help to keep it in the dark, are the enablers and themselves corrupt,” Haman said. “It’s up to our residents to demand transparency and accountability because Upper Darby Townships’ elected officials are not going to offer it.”

Those who questioned the holiday giveaway spending also see it as inappropriately politicized.

Flyers for the 2022 and 2023 holiday giveaways list Keffer and five Democratic councilpersons as event cosponsors. The latter also credits three Democratic councilpersons-elect.

But the bipartisan coalition of administration critics on Council was left off the flyers. That group included Wentz, Burke, at-large Democrat Matt Silva, 1st-District Republican Meaghan Wagner, 3rd-District Republican Brian Andruszko and then 2nd-District Republican Lisa Faraglia.

“We were never asked [to cosponsor],” Burke said.

Wentz took umbrage at the omission of her name particularly in light of her volunteering at past Men of Action giveaways. Emphasizing that she, like Haman, was stating her opinion, she suggested that the township’s Democratic leadership orchestrated the cosponsorship for “political purposes.” 

“When I saw the flier advertising it, I was quite offended,” she said.

Council Vice President Andrew Hayman (D-5th District) said he had no direct knowledge about why certain councilpersons were excluded. He recalled assisting directly with some of those giveaways himself and added he hoped recent events wouldn’t foment any hostility toward Men of Action which he views as an accomplished charity.

Hayman characterized the improper HUD spending as the sort of mistake municipalities often make but ultimately rectify.

“It sounds like an error from the previous administration and this administration corrected it…,” he said. “It’s not uncommon at all that municipalities are found to have erroneously used those funds…. It’s absolutely a mistake, but it was corrected.”

Other than Hayman, none of the holiday giveaway cosponsors on Council returned a request for comment. Keffer, Alberts, Dobbins and Rongione also did not respond to requests.

The LaRue letter cites turnover among township staff who worked on CDBG projects between 2020 and 2023 as a major cause of misspending. Both Wentz and Haman disputed that assertion. Wentz said a township employee who worked under Upper Darby’s former finance director Gary Merron was proficient in overseeing HUD projects but was unwisely reassigned to other duties for much of the aforementioned period.

Merron, who served as finance director until 2021, said he implemented an internal control system for township expenditures. But ultimately, he suggested, proper financial stewardship depends on the individuals running the administration.

“There are systems in place, but any system can be broken by bad actors, and bad actors might mean anything from corrupt working backwards to incompetent,” he said. “And it’s not for me to say where they fall on that line, but clearly everybody involved in the approval process blew it and so they were somewhere on that continuum.”

Burke said mismanagement has become so prevalent in Upper Darby government that the township will soon face a fiscal crisis.

“Upper Darby will be Chester [City] in less than five years: broke,” he said.

Wentz gave a frank assessment of the Keffer administration’s conduct on this matter.

“In my opinion, the Democratic leadership of Mayor Keffer, Vince Rongione and Alison Dobbins [has] treated the township finances as their own piggy bank and this is another example of it,” she said.

When Broad + Liberty first began inquiring about the spending in October, then-Mayor Keffer defended the toy purchases specifically because HUD was the overseeing agency. The response notably did not name Men of Action as the nonprofit.

“The toy purchases made at Target in December 2021 were purchased on behalf of a CDBG subrecipient (non-profit). The distribution of the toys were part of the non-profit subrecipient’s program,” Keffer wrote in an email. “The purchases were reimbursed by CDBG. No Upper Darby tax dollars were used for these purchases. For clarification, the CDBG Action plan is approved annually by both Council and HUD. The CDBG program is closely monitored by a third party consultant and is also audited regularly by HUD.”

Currently, Broad + Liberty is awaiting an appeal decision from the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records (OOR) regarding 67 boxes of Upper Darby’s HUD-related documents. The township indicated in March that it planned to take the boxes to a shredding event that ended up being rained out.

On March 25, Broad + Liberty requested access to the boxes but Upper Darby responded  it would need to charge $32,000 to photocopy all of their contents before a reporter could review them. This outlet filed an appeal with the OOR on April 9 and a final determination is due by July 17.

Bradley Vasoli is a writer and media strategist in Pennsylvania. You can follow him on X at @BVasoli.

One thought on “Upper Darby pays back over $40,000 spent on toy drives, holiday dinners”

  1. So lets get this straight. Government funding was used by a non-for-profit in an unsanctioned manner as revealed by an investigation. A group of Republicans had a temper tantrum about being left off of a flyer promoting the event. Which worked to their benefit as they avoided any blowback.

    The funds were repaid back to HUD and the crisis was resolved. But Bradley “Scrooge” Vasoli is upset because money was spent on helping families in need during Christmas, even though the funds were repaid to HUD. Clearly this is the work of the deep state.

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