September 29, 2020; Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
This is an ugly story, the elements of which we have unfortunately heard before. Industries for the Blind and Visually Impaired has been ordered to pay $1.9 million to the federal government after a whistleblower reported that the nonprofit was repackaging products from overseas and promoting them as having been produced by workers with disabilities—a false claim that earned the organization an Ability One certification, which in turn gave them an edge in bidding for contracts with government agencies.
This was no small-scale operation; it involved buying around $40 million worth of products annually from China, Taiwan, and South Korea and repackaging them. What’s more, this work was often performed by sighted workers, according to IBVI’s former marketing manager, Paul Inzeo, who filed a False Claims Act action a full five years ago. The suit claimed that the organization was “designed to enrich its officers at the expense of the very people it was created to help.”
IBVI president and CEO C.J. Lange is valiantly trying to spin the situation, saying, “These settlement negotiations have provided an opportunity for us to strengthen our relationship and trust with the United States government, while also ensuring that our staff is working towards our mission of blind employment.” Paid more than $500,000 annually, Lange is the son of Charles Lange, who was the president of the nonprofit until 2013.
Many aspects of this story are familiar from our coverage of Goodwill Omaha, which also repackaged goods from China while claiming local production by workers with disabilities. Goodwill, too, was rife with nepotism involving high salaries. Investigations in Omaha led to action to unseat and replace the board and staff leadership and to the organization essentially being put on probation by many local regulators, including the state’s attorney general office and the local tax assessment system, which placed its property tax abatement on hold. However, this settlement in Wisconsin appears to leave the miscreants and system in place.
This kind of pattern can proliferate within certain nonprofit fields, which is why we need to support our national network of local regulators. Two million dollars an insufficient price to pay for this kind of exploitive scheme. We hope that local regulators are also looking at the case.—Ruth McCambridge