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Originally published March 1, 2011 at 10:02 PM | Page modified March 2, 2011 at 2:04 PM

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Urban League is on the defensive

Even before the civil-rights organization was caught up in the Seattle Public Schools' financial scandal, the city had reduced its financial support drastically, killing one big contract and slashing another.

Seattle Times political reporter

It's already been a rough year for the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle.

Even before the venerable civil-rights organization was caught up in the Seattle Public Schools' financial scandal, the city had reduced its financial support drastically, killing one big contract and slashing another.

In January, the city yanked a $500,000-a-year contract for the Urban League's youth-violence prevention work and awarded it to other organizations. The city criticized the Urban League for submitting vague, inaccurate invoices — accusations similar to those raised by auditors in the schools scandal.

The city also cut long-standing financial support of the Urban League's center to help minority small-business owners to get construction contracts, deciding to seek other bidders for the first time in years.

In the midst of all this, longtime President James Kelly stepped down in January, citing health and personal concerns.

The Urban League has been largely silent since the school-district state audit made headlines last week.

Tony Benjamin, the Urban League's acting chief executive, said he's been through a "baptism by fire" and would answer questions at a news conference Wednesday morning. The group has tapped political consultant Cathy Allen for advice.

"We'll address all of that tomorrow," Benjamin said. "Hopefully, it will clear the air."

State audit

Questions about the Urban League's handling of public contracts surfaced in the state audit, which questioned $1.8 million in expenses in Seattle Public Schools' small-business contracting program.

The Urban League was the largest single recipient of that money, receiving nearly $600,000 in contracts that were labeled "questionable uses of public funds" by auditors.

One of the Urban League's big contracts from the city of Seattle was awarded in 2009 as part of then-Mayor Greg Nickels' initiative to tamp down violence after a rash of shootings in Central and South Seattle.

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The no-bid contract paid the Urban League about $900,000 for its work over two years.

As part of the program, the Urban League hired outreach staff to seek out troubled youths and try to reconnect them with schools, jobs and counseling.

But this year, under Mayor Mike McGinn, the city decided to put the contract out for competitive bidding. The Urban League submitted a bid, but the work was awarded to the YMCA and Therapeutic Health Services in January, records show.

"Deficient"

A city evaluation finished last month criticized the Urban League's performance on the contract — rating its performance "below requirements" or "deficient" in 16 of 28 categories.

The harshest grades were for sloppy invoices and budget problems — issues similar to those raised by state auditors with the Urban League's work with the school district.

The organization met the city's contract requirements in 10 categories and was rated "superior" in two — including praise for trying innovative approaches to the violence problem.

Mariko Lockhart, head of the city's Youth Violence Prevention Initiative, described the Urban League's record on the project as mixed.

"They had strong staff. I just think the oversight of it was probably not tight," said Lockhart, describing the organization's invoices and other records as "a mess" — especially after the departure of program coordinator Jamila Taylor.

Taylor, who quit the Urban League last fall, now works on the youth-violence-prevention effort with Therapeutic Health Services.

She said she could not explain the Urban League's difficulties but said the youth-violence effort has paid dividends by reaching at-risk kids.

"We were able to do some very important things to help kids stay out of some trouble," Taylor said.

Even before losing its city contract, there was some indication the Urban League was having financial difficulties. "It was always a rush to make sure we turned around their bill as fast as possible so they could meet their payroll," Lockhart said.

When the city late last year declined to pay the Urban League bonuses of several thousand dollars on the youth-violence effort, the organization complained and threatened to go to the City Council or mayor, Lockhart said.

Second blow

A second blow came when the city drastically cut the Urban League's other major contract that supported its Contractor Development & Competitiveness Center.

The CDCC was created in 2002 to help small minority-owned businesses win construction contracts. The city spent about $480,000 a year between 2003 and 2010 on the CDCC, according to McGinn's office.

That was reduced to $100,000 this year, and city departments were encouraged to seek other competitors to do similar work, Deputy Mayor Darryl Smith said.

Requiring more competitive bidding for contracts "is the direction we're going" with all city services, Smith said.

"It's difficult for the public to buy that you're not going to work your contracts in that way," he said.

CDCC program

The state audit accused the Urban League of overcharging the school district to fund its CDCC program.

Auditors said the school district was overcharged by the Urban League for services that did not benefit the district — including up to $15,000 a month for "general overhead and administration."

The Urban League didn't document how the charges benefitted the school district, but it stated repeatedly that the money was needed "to keep the doors open," auditors said.

The State Auditor's Office now is examining the CDCC as part of its regular audit of the city of Seattle, spokeswoman Mindy Chambers said Wednesday.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com

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