December 13, 2018; Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Around three weeks ago, we ran an article about an Evansville, Illinois nonprofit that was beginning to rebound after losing the community’s trust in the wake of an embezzlement scandal. At the end of that article, we referenced an organization called UNISON in Milwaukee that was starting down a path that seemed eerily familiar. We were right to be wary; UNISON’s story has taken some very similar twists and turns.

UNISON works to connect older adults and younger families to services and supports they need. It’s the result of a merger of two other organizations earlier this year (SET Ministries and Interfaith Older Adult program) and generally was seen as doing good work…until a few weeks ago, that is, when the organization’s president and CEO, Laurie Lambach, was taken into custody by the Milwaukee County Sheriffs on suspicion of embezzlement—exactly what happened in Evansville with ECHO Housing’s chief staff officer.

It should, however, be noted that Lambach has not been criminally charged, and that last week, UNISON’s board said its internal investigation of the transaction “has yet to show any money has left the organization.”

Unlike the ECHO situation, the UNISON board chair, Bob De Vita, posted a letter on Facebook almost immediately, describing the situation and outlining what the organization was doing in response to it. De Vita expressed the organization’s surprise, but also said Lambach had been relieved of her duties pending a full investigation, and two senior staff would serve as interim co-CEOs. In an NPQ article from two years ago, the late Woods Bowman cited this as one of the markers of a responsible organization: being candid.

Just before the announcement of Lambach’s detention, the United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County had decided to suspend support for UNISON based on the lack of an audit—also reminiscent of what happened to ECHO. Now, an article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has revealed that the county is pulling its contract to manage services for seniors from UNISON. Just as happened with ECHO, people are losing trust in UNISON based on an accusation of one person’s misdeeds that led to gradual revelation of deeper issues inside the organization.

The contract in question is worth $1.9 million to provide programs at three senior centers, supervision at 18 senior meal sites, coordination of respite care, and community outreach for Alzheimer’s disease and other services. In other words, the disruption of the contract might mean disruption of services to vulnerable community members. Holly Davis, head of the County’s Department on Aging, had originally recommended going to a month-to-month relationship as the situation with Lambach played itself out. In the midst of the concerns about Lambach, it was revealed that an audit indicating significant accounting deficiencies at the agency had not been shared with the County for at least six months. This is what led Davis to change her mind and recommend cutting ties with UNISON. (It’s likely that this is the same audit that the United Way had been waiting to see.) Given that the merger was announced in October of 2018, the audit must have been for one of the two previous organizations. Lambach had been CEO of SET Ministry prior to the merge.

Last week’s decision by the county supervisors authorizes the Department on Aging to end its relationship with UNISON at the end of this month and to work to transfer the contract to other agencies as quickly as possible. An alternative would be for the Department to take up the work themselves, and they have been authorized to hire staff on a temporary basis if needed, including UNISON staff. (They could be temporarily suspended, contracted to other agencies, or managed by existing staff but under the temporary supervision of the County.)

In the meantime, the UNISON board is exploring what to do as they prepare to help the more than 100 employees that they plan to lay off find other work. This does not mean the complete collapse of the organization, however, and the board president has been quoted as saying they still have some very strong contracts with other government agencies, and these will continue.

The leadership of ECHO in Evansville came to the city with a stringent plan of action to ensure that the problem never happens again. By dealing with the issue head-on, they were able to overcome the distrust that had built up from acting covertly and behind closed doors. It may be too late for UNISON to do something similar and get back into the county’s good graces, but as of this writing, Lambach has not been arrested or charged with any criminal activity, and the board president asserts that according to their internal investigation, no unaccounted-for funds have left the organization.—Rob Meiksins

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