Thursday, April 27, 2006 01:34 am
Some of Springfields most prominent citizens were in charge when Goodwill crashed. Why didnt they do anything?
Ten inches of snow blanketed the ground. The temperature was 6 degrees below zero. Schools were closed that Monday in January 1999 as the entire state recovered from an epic blizzard that had claimed at least a dozen lives over the weekend, most as a result of heart attacks suffered while people shoveled snow.
Staff writer Dusty Rhodes contributed to this report
It was just another workday at Land of Lincoln Goodwill Industries.
Scarcely believing her eyes, job-placement specialist Susanne Cooper watched as a bus filled with the developmentally disabled and physically challenged pulled up that morning at Goodwill headquarters on North 10th Street. Cooper carried a lunch cooler for a woman who clutched her with both hands as the pair waded through drifts to make it to the building. That very day, Cooper wrote it all down in a diary she kept, chronicling the bizarre world of Goodwill in Springfield:
The level of disregard for client well-being astounds me. It’s bad enough to expect staff to report in sub-zero weather to an unprepared building, but to expect people with disabilities, many of whom are old and in poor health, to come in is just outrageous! Larry said (as I remember hearing it reported) the last time we closed due to weather that he’d never do it again because then people thought the stores were closed and they lost money on store sales. As if he couldn’t close the training and program facility and specify that the stores would be open — and how much money would he lose, anyway? I am convinced Debbie and Larry have absolutely no concern for clients — or staff — and no business in rehab.
That wasn’t all. Time and again in her diary, Cooper documents fast ones pulled by executive director Larry Hupp and his top assistant, Debra Neece, to create the illusion of a smoothly run, professional operation. Eventually, though, the law caught up with them, forcing their ouster from one of Springfield’s highest-profile charities.
Last fall, prosecutors finally nailed Hupp and Neece for deception dating back at least five years. The agency’s board of directors refused to do anything. Even today, board members — among them some of Springfield’s best-known citizens — duck responsibility, saying that they shouldn’t be held accountable for an agency that descended into chaos, lies, and red ink.
Cooper’s written account ranges from the tragic to the petty to the appalling. “It was a crazy world,” she says in an interview. In 1997, Cooper writes, Goodwill was short on donated items to sell at a silent auction that was part of a fundraising dinner. Cooper says she had seen several things that could have been sold, including a pewter tea set, silver flatware, a coin collection, and a Marilyn Monroe lithograph, but these items either disappeared or weren’t deemed appropriate by Neece or Hupp. In the end, she says, Hupp and Neece told her to shop antique stores until she’d found enough items that could be billed as having come from donors and sold at the fundraiser.
Then there was the day Cooper had an appointment scheduled with a client for a one-on-one session to help him find work. Shortly before the client was scheduled to arrive, Hupp told her that he was sending a half-dozen-or-so developmentally disabled clients to her office, which doubled as a classroom, so that she could pretend to teach a job-seeking class. A group from the United Way was touring the premises, Cooper says, and Hupp thought that a class would look better than just one person.
“ ‘We have to have a dog-and-pony show’ — that’s what he would say,” Cooper recalls in an interview. “That’s when I would just go off — that’s probably why I’m not there anymore. I said, ‘Why do I have to do a pretend class when I have a client scheduled?’ It was very insulting. What is this, a [expletive] zoo? It was ‘Let’s go look at the zoo.’ ”
Darker yet are Cooper’s recollections of how Hupp and Neece dealt with inspectors charged with determining whether Goodwill was doing a good job of helping the disadvantaged. Neece came into her office in January 1998 and announced that a former employee would be flying in from Phoenix to help the agency prepare for an accreditation survey by the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities, a national organization that ensures that organizations such as Goodwill are trustworthy and provide quality services to the disabled. The woman, who did not return messages left on her home and cellular phones — would be in town for at least one month.
The CARF survey was vital for the nonprofit agency, which runs seven thrift stores, including four in Springfield, and uses the proceeds to help the handicapped. The organization’s very existence was at stake. The state requires accreditation as a condition for receiving public funds, and Goodwill was collecting nearly $675,000 in government grants each year. Furthermore, Goodwill Industries International, the Maryland-based organization that oversees more than 200 Goodwill chapters, requires its affiliates to be accredited.
Cooper, who’d worked at Goodwill since 1986, says that she and other employees could have gotten the paperwork together for surveyors, who typically spend three days combing through records and talking to staff. Instead, Neece and Hupp decided to bring in an outsider in from Arizona. In addition to giving her a paycheck, Cooper says, Goodwill also set the ex-employee up in an apartment. As a new mother, the ex-employee had her own priorities.
“She wouldn’t come without her baby,” Cooper recalls. “We had to hire a friggin’ babysitter.” Goodwill also provided a daycare center — in Cooper’s office. “I asked, ‘Where am I supposed to be?’ ” recalls Cooper, who was so taken aback that she snapped photographs. “She [Neece] said, ‘You can be here with the baby,’ like it’s the most normal thing in the world. They bought a crib. I couldn’t believe it. I was flabbergasted. This babysitter would come and take care of the baby. We all kind of played with him.”
By that time, Cooper’s career at Goodwill was drawing to a close. Although she hadn’t had any regular work assignments in months, she says she remained on the payroll for about a year for doing little or nothing. Still, her office, which Cooper also used as a classroom to teach job-seeking skills, was no place for an infant. “I was still getting calls from clients,” says Cooper, who was fired in 1999. “There would be a baby crying in the background. It was just bizarre.”
Cooper and other employees suspected that something beyond daycare arrangements wasn’t right.
No one seems to really look at what’s going on. Staff disgusted that everything is fabricated. Don’t know what’s being hidden, but do know that since Feb. 24, when call of inspection came in, there has been a frenzy to complete time studies and locate files. A lot of evidence has been altered. Irregularities apparently more serious and more all encompassing than we could imagine.
That diary entry was written in 1998, one month after Cooper’s office was turned into a nursery. Inspectors from the U.S. Department of Labor had just arrived to determine whether Goodwill employees were being properly compensated. While employees spirited developmentally disabled workers out a back door, Hupp invented a story about burst water pipes closing down operations, and everyone stayed home the next day, according to state police and Cooper’s diary. The ruse worked so well that Hupp used a similar ploy the next year, when a state Department of Human Services surveyor came calling to determine whether Goodwill was doing a good job. Sorry, Hupp fibbed, but we’re closed because the boiler broke and there isn’t any heat.
“Many witnesses suggested Goodwill’s maintenance man . . . helped turn off the boiler that day to help fool the DHS surveyor,” writes Illinois State Police Sgt. Rodney Miller in a 2005 report confirming many of the misdeeds Cooper documented. With the state none the wiser, the survey was postponed. That was just three days after Hupp demanded that everyone come to work in the wake of a blizzard.
Neither Hupp nor Neece returned calls seeking comment for this story. Cooper says she kept the diary partly as a CYA move and partly because she’s a compulsive note-taker. Notes she made recording the progress of a client who did clerical work for the state Department of Children and Family Services in 1998 bear out her penchant for recordkeeping. Each day, Cooper accompanied the developmentally disabled woman to state offices to help her succeed. In minute detail, she describes the woman’s struggle to learn a filing system and her triumphs, such as successfully completing an assignment. Similarly, Cooper kept copious notes as she gently persuaded another client not to apply for a promotion to a state post for which she was not qualified. In both cases, Cooper had stepped in to replace a job coach who had unexpectedly resigned. Her caring nature and skill won her accolades from outside Goodwill. “Susanne’s dedication and commitment to the well-being of her clients is appreciated,” writes Christina M. Griffin, DCFS personnel manager, in a thank-you letter to Hupp. “Goodwill is fortunate to have her on staff.”
Hupp was the essence of terse a year later in a “To Whom It May Concern” letter of recommendation he signed after letting Cooper go. “Ms. Cooper was laid off due to lack of work,” Hupp writes. “Ms. Cooper work [sic] cooperatively with area agencies and businesses. We wish Susanne much luck with her job search and know that she will find a position that matches her qualifications and experience.” Today Cooper works at the Springfield Center for Independent Living, which helps people with disabilities live on their own. Getting laid off hurt.
“Goodwill paid better than most any other place,” says Cooper, who worked as a job-placement specialist at a different social-service agency before Goodwill hired her 20 years ago. “I may never recover from not working at Goodwill anymore — I’m making now what I was making in 1986.”
Until the end drew near, Cooper believed that the agency did good work and really helped people. She recalls landing grants to help disadvantaged youth and get welfare recipients off the dole and into the workforce. She remembers applying for grants to help the homeless. But she says that the agency’s focus shifted away from everything except the stores and the physically disabled or mentally impaired. She says that her workload vanished because Goodwill stopped applying for grants to help the at-risk youth and welfare recipients in whom she specialized.
“That was the excuse they used: We don’t have those grants any more, so there’s really nothing for me to do,” Cooper says. “I went to see an attorney after I left. He basically said Illinois is an at-will state and they can let anyone go for no reason at all. He wanted to know what I wanted. I really didn’t want my job back. “I said I wanted him — Larry — to be held accountable.”
Law enforcement steps in
A half-dozen years later, Hupp has finally been held accountable — but not by the Goodwill board of directors, which has the power to hire and fire the agency’s executive director and is charged with keeping the charity on course. The board includes some of Springfield’s most prominent citizens. For nearly three years, they stood by while investigators with the state police, the FBI and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service built cases against Hupp and Neece.
The board was informed of the investigation in the spring of 2003, shortly after it began. Last fall, Hupp admitted that he’d ordered employees to falsify records as part of a scheme that cost taxpayers an estimated $38,000. Neece confessed that she’d helped. Both were forced to resign, but not by the board. Rather, Neece and Hupp left after the U.S. attorney made an offer they couldn’t refuse: Quit or be prosecuted.
In addition to cooking the books, Hupp was running a leaky financial ship. In fiscal year 2004, the most recent year for which federal tax returns are available, Goodwill lost nearly a quarter-million dollars. Since the investigation started, Goodwill has spent at least $90,000 on lawyers. Tax returns for fiscal year 2005, which ended in June of last year, are scheduled to become public within a month, and they likely won’t be pretty. The agency’s interim director, who calls himself a “crisis consultant,” says that Goodwill was losing money when he arrived in December to clean up after Hupp, whose pay soared while the agency’s finances tanked.
“The condition of the agency when I came in was fragile,” says James Verpoten, a Goodwill superhero of sorts who rescues troubled chapters that call national headquarters seeking help. “This Goodwill has to make some very tough decisions to turn it around financially.”
Bottom line, he says, Goodwill should be generating about $8 million a year. Instead, it’s been taking in between $6 million and $6.5 million a year since 2002, according to records on file with the Internal Revenue Service. More bad news may be on the horizon: An ex-employee who says she was fired for cooperating with investigators has filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit that’s just beginning to work its way through the court system. State appellate court judge Thomas Appleton, who has served on the Goodwill board for a quarter-century, won’t comment on the merits of the case, but he doesn’t sound ready to cave.
“We’re aggressively defending it,” the judge says.
Diane Cox, a former Goodwill program manager who’s suing the agency for more than $50,000, says that she was fired in October 2003, just one month after testifying before a grand jury. In court papers, Cox says that she told the grand jury that Goodwill concealed an employee’s felony conviction from the state, doctored documents to show that employees had undergone training that had not actually been accomplished, claimed that staffers held jobs that they didn’t really have, and retested disabled clients to show that they needed more help than initial tests had indicated, thereby allowing Goodwill to collect more state money. Several of Cox’s accusations were borne out in statements-cum-confessions that Hupp and Neece signed last year to avoid prosecution.
A grand-jury investigation. Huge legal fees. A river of red ink. Falsification of documents by top administrators. All this begs the question: Why didn’t the board —which includes two judges, the Sangamon County sheriff, a bank president, and a television-news anchorwoman — get rid of Hupp volition instead of relying on the U.S. attorney’s office to hold him accountable?
“We weren’t capable of figuring out what the truth was — it was a ‘he said, she-said’ situation,” Appleton answers. “There was no real reason, until this whole thing blew up, to even think about making a change.”
Even after signing an agreement with the feds in October, promising to resign, Hupp kept his job for a month. Rather than cut him a lump-sum check for accrued vacation, sick leave, and other benefits, the board kept paying Hupp his full salary until last month. Even now, Appleton dismisses the charges against Hupp and Neece as more form than substance — paperwork snafus as opposed to deliberate falsehoods.
“It’s more a bureaucratic imperative than anything else,” he says. Appleton also won’t concede that Goodwill improperly collected $38,000 in Medicaid funding.
“I don’t know that the state’s ever found that,” he says. But the prosecutor who demanded accountability and forced Hupp’s ouster says that this was much more than crossing t’s and dotting i’s.
“Of course it’s a serious matter — it’s an extremely serious matter,” says former U.S. Attorney Jan Paul Miller, who is now in private practice. Miller points out that Hupp admitted, in writing, that he’d ordered employees to falsify records to mislead state inspectors who were trying to find out whether Goodwill qualified for state money.
As for the $38,000 in Medicaid money, Miller points to a paragraph in a pretrial diversion agreement Hupp signed in November to avoid prosecution: Between June 2002 and April 2003, various Goodwill employees created records that falsely reported hours of vocational rehabilitation services that Goodwill provided its clients. The submission of the false records resulted in an overpayment of approximately $38,000 to Goodwill.
“I don’t think it can be any clearer than that,” Miller says. “Hupp admitted he was responsible. I will say that when you have, as was admitted here, a head of an organization such as this, directing folks to falsify records regarding basic job training, it can’t help but have a detrimental effect on the individuals that Goodwill is supposed to be serving.”
Rich Behl, a program service administrator with the state Department of Human Services, says two of the three employees for whom Goodwill claimed to be providing rehabilitation services were actually temporary workers hired through an agency. The workers sorted clothing and other donated goods, says Behl, himself a former Goodwill employee.
“They, realistically, didn’t need job coaches,” Behl says. He recalls that they were independent enough that they had drivers licenses.
Pointing out that he wasn’t here when Hupp got in trouble, Verpoten — who is leaving Springfield at the end of this month — won’t say whether the board should have fired the director before the feds forced him to resign. What if he had been on the board? “I would have put him on a leave of absence pending further investigation,” he says.
That would have been silly, Appleton says. “What’s the financial benefit of doing that?” he asks. “By putting him on leave, I’ve got to pay his salary plus someone else to do his job, and now I’m down a whole bunch of money. That’s dumb.”
Although Goodwill was performing far below its potential, Hupp and Neece saw their salaries skyrocket. Between 1998 and 2004, Neece’s salary went from $53,500 to $75,540. Hupp, who was getting paid $78,500 in 1998, did even better. In fiscal year 2001, for example, Hupp’s pay shot from $84,500 to $106,880, an increase of more than $22,000 in one year. He didn’t get a raise the next year, but his salary zoomed to $131,444 in fiscal year 2003, an increase of nearly $25,000. The agency’s revenues that year exceeded expenses by less than $5,500, thanks in part to tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees that started showing up on IRS records as the criminal investigation got under way.
In fiscal year 2004 alone, Goodwill spent nearly $56,000 on attorneys. Hupp saw a pay cut that year — his salary went from more than $130,000 to $117,415. Appleton says that Hupp’s annual raises were triggered by bonuses. “We’re talking store sales now — if the incentives were met, he got a bump,” Appleton says. The judge points out that revenue under Hupp increased year after year. “When I went on the board [in 1980], store sales were at $1.5 million,” Appleton says. “When he left, they were approaching $6 million. Every year, it got better. If you’re sitting on a board, looking at a benchmark, it looks pretty good.”
In retrospect, however, Appleton concedes that the agency didn’t live up to its potential. He agrees with Verpoten’s assessment that revenue should be in the neighborhood of $8 million. “There were some things that could have been done better,” he says.
Besides Appleton, the 16-member board includes Sangamon County Sheriff Neil Williamson, Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge Patrick Kelley, Springfield Mass Transit District director Richard Fix, Long Elevator vice president Mike Long, and WICS-TV (Channel 20) anchorwoman Julie Staley. How could all of these community leaders be so oblivious?
“The board was isolated,” Verpoten offers. “The executive officer did not share with the board of directors, nor did he share with the staff. That is not the way a nonprofit should work. We need to be transparent.”
Cooper, the former job-placement specialist, says that employees didn’t dare contact board members to air concerns. “We were not supposed to have any contact with them,” she says. “We weren’t supposed to know who they were. I thought it was odd that the board never came around and met the staff people. If you went to the annual silent auction, no one made an effort to introduce them.”
Appleton says that the staff is free to speak with him or other board members. “I don’t think there’s a single board member who would decline to hear from an employee,” he says. Was that made clear to employees? “That, I doubt,” Appleton answers. Would employees have known that the board had an open-door policy? “I don’t know,” the judge responds.
Under terms of the deal with prosecutors he signed last fall, Hupp agreed not to seek employment with any agency that helps the developmentally disabled and receives more than 5 percent of its gross revenue from the federal government. He is now under the supervision of federal probation officers and must obey all laws. If he does not, or if he violates any provision of the agreement, which expires next year, prosecutors can file criminal charges. Neece, who also admitted to wrongdoing, signed a similar pretrial diversion agreement to avoid prosecution.
A do-nothing board
Even as Goodwill melted down, board members treated the charity as little more than a notch on their résumé belts. By all appearances, the board wasn’t in the business of seeing or hearing evil. Sheriff Williamson, who’s been on the board for three years, says he didn’t find out about the allegations against Hupp until last year. That’s more than a year after the FBI and state police served a search warrant at Goodwill headquarters in June 2003.
“I was totally shocked,” says Williamson, who estimates he’s missed about two-thirds of the monthly board meetings and hasn’t attended one since Thanksgiving. “I had known the director, Larry, for quite some time. I always thought that the operation was run professionally, with no problems. Of course, the board, we don’t really have a lot to do with the day-to-day operations, per se. We meet once a month and pretty much rubber-stamp what’s already been done.”
After answering a few questions, Williamson starts saying that Judge Kelley should answer for the board because he’s the chairman. Although a state-police report summarizing the highlights of investigators’ findings is dated Feb. 8, 2005, Kelley says that the board was in the dark until the very end of Hupp’s tenure, late last year.
Even today, Kelley isn’t familiar with tales of broken pipes and boilers, invented by Hupp to hold off government inspectors, that are chronicled in the police report. The board never spoke with anyone from the state Department of Human Services, the state agency that first discovered wrongdoing. Kelley says that the board was kept apprised of the investigation by J. William Roberts, a former U.S. attorney, Sangamon County state’s attorney, and counsel to former Gov. Jim Edgar who is now a managing partner at Hinshaw Culbertson, one of the biggest law firms in Illinois.
“He gave us information about where the investigation was going,” Kelley says. Roberts did not return a phone call from Illinois Times. Now that the investigation is over, Kelley agrees that Goodwill underperformed financially under Hupp and that Hupp misled state inspectors.
“Certainly we can and will do better than we have,” Kelley says. “I see it as a cathartic event.” Other board members are not so enlightened.
“Larry Hupp and Debby were a delight to work with,” says Julie Staley of WICS. “They were full of integrity and are very much missed.”
Internal Revenue Service records show that Staley has been on the board since at least June 2003. She remains on the board today, according to her biography on the television station’s Web site, which also notes that she was honored in 2002 by United Cerebral Palsy for her reporting on people with disabilities. Staley claims that she had no power to do anything about any misdeeds, real or alleged, on the part of Hupp or Neece, even though she was on the board when the federal investigation began.
As the questions get tougher during a short interview, which ends when she abruptly hangs up, the news kitten turns into a lion, saying it’s not fair to hold her accountable for what happened at Goodwill, whether the issue is suspected criminal activity or lackluster financial returns. “I wasn’t on the board when all this went down,” she says in a rising voice. “I really came in after the fact. I was not here before it happened. I wasn’t here when the alleged events happened. I’m just after the fact. “I really was an innocent bystander.”
Sins at Goodwill went beyond innocent paperwork mistakes. On Hupp’s watch, deliberate violations of safety rules and regulations put real people at real risk, according to insiders familiar with the investigation.
The first crack in Goodwill’s veneer appeared in March 2003, when a man named Fred Malcolm called the state Department of Human Services to ask why he hadn’t received a certificate from the state documenting that he’d been trained to watch over the developmentally disabled. Maryam Mostoufi, a bureau chief in the department’s Division of Developmental Disabilities, answered the phone.
Malcolm told Mostoufi that two other people who’d been trained by Goodwill and were sitting in the same room with him had gotten their certificates. He also told Mostoufi something most disturbing. Illinois requires 40 hours of classroom instruction, plus 80 hours of on-the-job training, before certifying someone to look after the developmentally disabled. Yet, Malcolm told Mostoufi, Goodwill had told him and others that they were qualified after just two or three days in a classroom.
“The math didn’t work out,” Mostoufi says.
After a little checking, Mostoufi learned why Malcolm hadn’t gotten his certificate. He’d been convicted of writing bad checks more than a decade earlier. As a felon, he couldn’t get a certificate unless he or Goodwill asked the state for a waiver — but Goodwill hadn’t informed Malcolm of the requirement, nor had the agency applied for a waiver on his behalf. It was enough smoke to justify a spot inspection of Goodwill’s training records.
State surveyors arrived, appropriately, on April Fool’s Day — but they weren’t fooled. Signatures were obviously forged on sign-in sheets for training sessions held to teach Goodwill employees how to oversee developmentally disabled workers. The attempt at trickery would have been laughable if the stakes weren’t so high. Names were misspelled on signatures with handwriting that didn’t jibe from one purported training session to the next. At least as serious were photocopied Red Cross cards that were supposed to show that employees who watched over the developmentally disabled had undergone first-aid and CPR training. It appeared that employee names had been written over whited-out sections so that it would look as if workers had cards and had undergone training. Original cards were missing — Goodwill couldn’t come up with anything but photocopies. DHS checked with the American Red Cross and learned that there were no records showing that Goodwill employees with photocopied cards had gotten the required medical training.
This was a serious matter. In addition to taking drugs that put them at risk of adverse reactions to medication, the developmentally disabled are more prone to seizures than most people. Yet here they were working at Goodwill headquarters, with no one within eyesight or earshot qualified to help in the event of a medical emergency. Mostoufi contacted the state police. Yes — police were interested. The FBI was called in. Investigators made plans to serve a search warrant. But this wasn’t going to be a break-down-the-door, run-of-the-mill assignment.
Before the cops went in, experts with DHS gave them printed handouts and trained them in communicating and otherwise dealing with the developmentally disabled: Use soft voices. Be patient. Don’t wear clothes that might alarm them. Allow these folks plenty of time to digest and process what you’re saying. “I have to tell you that the state police and the FBI were remarkable,” Mostoufi says. “They were just like sponges. They really wanted that information. I have never seen such a level of professionalism.”
The search team walked away with more than 60 boxes of documents. The State Journal-Register duly reported the raid on June 19, 2003, along with comments from Hupp, who professed complete surprise. The executive director who would later sign a deal to avoid prosecution said he had no idea why the police had come. “We’re just cooperating and, as I indicated, we’re working internally from the management standpoint to make sure we don’t have any problems,” Hupp told the newspaper. “And hopefully we’ll get this issue resolved quickly.” But it didn’t get resolved quickly. 2003 turned into 2004, then 2005.
Finally prosecutors proposed pretrial diversion agreements, promising not to prosecute Hupp and Neece if they resigned. Before offering the deal, the prosecutors checked with Mostoufi and other DHS officials, who gave their blessing. Like so many cases of white-collar fraud, this one was complex. The agencies involved ranged from social-service offices to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which was concerned about an underground storage tank at Goodwill headquarters. “Hupp lied to the [EPA] investigators and claimed the tank had been inoperable years before he became executive director at Goodwill,” Sgt. Miller writes in his police report summarizing the case against Hupp and Neece.
“They explained it would be two to five years before we could go to trial,” Mostoufi recalls. “During that period of time, none of us could guarantee that Hupp and Neece would be gone — it would be quite possible that they would be there until the time of the trial. There was a culture that had developed there that could not change until they left. The culture could possibly continue in a way that could jeopardize the health, safety, and welfare of the individuals Goodwill is supposed to help. We could not assist the agency in providing technical assistance we needed to ensure health, safety, and welfare. There was a climate of distrust.”
Cooper, whose journal was scrutinized by investigators who had interviewed her more than a year earlier, read about the deals in the newspaper. “I just didn’t think it was enough,” she says. “It was better than nothing, I guess.”
Everywhere he turned, Verpoten found a mess when he took over from Hupp in December.
The agency was losing $30,000 a year on one contract alone in which clients worked as janitors. Stores were staffed with temporary workers, which was costing the charity as much as $200,000 a year in fees paid to temp agencies. There was no human-resources department. There were no limits on administrative expenses. The same accounting firm audited the books year after year without having to bid on the work. None of the managers of the charity’s seven stores had met each other. Stores looked cluttered and dingy.
Employees working amid fear and dissension did what they were told without asking questions or coming up with suggestions. The agency used unattended wooden sheds to collect donations, a practice that ended 20 years ago at modern Goodwills, which have donors bring items to stores instead of leaving stuff in areas open to thieves and the weather. Besides giving staff a chance to personally greet and thank donors, in-person collections reduce the likelihood of receiving junk that must be hauled to a landfill. The agency raked money from stores in Jacksonville, Champaign, and Bloomington but provided no services to the disadvantaged in those areas.
“That’s the old way; that’s not the new way,” Verpoten says. “The new way says you don’t take something from a community without giving something back. We’ve got such fantastic things going on around the country. We’re trying to pull this one up by its bootstraps and get it on track.”
During the past 15 years or so, scores of Goodwills across the nation have transformed themselves from musty secondhand outlets to gleaming storefronts that generate cash to help the disadvantaged. The charity, founded in 1902, flourished during the 1990s, when Fred Grandy, a former congressman who played Gopher on the television series The Love Boat, became head of the national organization. Under Grandy’s leadership, Goodwills became much more than junk stores that benefited the handicapped.
Shopgoodwill.com, an online auction service patterned after eBay, went into business in 2000, attracting bids of hundreds of dollars for items that might previously have brought in just a few bucks. Besides the physically and mentally challenged, Goodwill started helping welfare recipients, the homeless, newly released convicts, battered women, foreign refugees, and others who needed a hand to make it on their own. But not in Springfield, where the focus is on the severely mentally and physically disadvantaged.
Verpoten envisions an agency that will one day branch out to Decatur and other communities, helping a wide array of people in need, not just the disabled. But Goodwill first must stabilize itself. Plans are afoot to ensure that residents of Bloomington and other towns with Goodwill stores are represented on the board of directors. The board this week is scheduled to vote on a new set of bylaws that will include, among other things, term limits for board members.
The agency has put its auditing work out for bid and adopted a policy limiting administrative expenses to 12 percent of revenue. A human-resources department is in place. The board expects to hire a permanent executive director any day now. And Goodwill has repaid the $38,000 the state found had been inappropriately collected from taxpayers, Verpoten says.
Temporary workers have been replaced with employees who earn more than $9 an hour and can get benefits. Unattended collection boxes are being eliminated. Employees are encouraged to ask questions and offer their opinions. Supervisors have been sent to training seminars to learn the right way to run a Goodwill.
“The best way I can describe it is, everyone is talking about the new Goodwill,” says Verpoten, who plans to return soon to Buffalo, where he’ll rest up for a few weeks before going to Arizona to help another Goodwill. “We’ve brought everything out in the open. I wouldn’t be backing out now if this chapter didn’t have a good future. We fixed it.”
Mostoufi is encouraged.
“We’ve seen a lot of progress,” she says. “I think he [Verpoten] has done a very good job. I think he’s very sincere. He has a good way of opening things up and making the staff feel valued.”
The renaissance was palpable last week at the Wabash Avenue store, which celebrated a grand reopening after being closed for more than a month to repair tornado damage. The store is spotless, featuring racks neatly arranged with clothing marked with color-coded tags to streamline inventory control. This doesn’t look like a junk store — a dozen pairs of lightly used Doc Martens are on display in a glass case, with prices ranging from $11.75 to $23.75.
More than 25 people stand in line when the doors open. Michelle Sgro is at the front, having arrived nearly an hour before the ribbon-cutting. Sgro sees no shame in shopping at Goodwill, where she once found a baseball glove autographed by Mark McGwire that she snapped up for a dollar or two. She buys shoes for herself — her closet measures 12 feet by 12 feet and is nearly full — and shirts for her husband, who works in construction. “He’s the only builder who builds in Ralph Lauren,” she boasts.
Sgro knows Verpoten — she bumped into him a week earlier while shopping at a different Goodwill. She gives him good marks, except that she thinks merchandise needs to stay on shelves longer before it’s sold by the pound on the rag market. Clothing is removed so fast, she says, that the racks look empty. It’s a minor quibble, one that Verpoten says is being addressed.
Appleton is the only board member present, and he keeps a low profile, leaving media interviews to Verpoten. Facing the cameras, the interim director starts talking about rebuilding Goodwill, reaching beyond the disabled, and otherwise recovering from the Hupp years. Mark Thoma, a reporter for WICS, looks confused. “Rebuilding — you mean nationally?” Thoma asks. No, Verpoten answers, here in Springfield. Thoma wants to know whether this is about the tornado or something more. Stick with the tornado, Thoma advises — that’s what we’re interested in.
The story glows in the State Journal-Register business section the next day, noting how clean and polished the reopened store looks. No mention is made of Goodwill’s newest competition just down the road. Less than a mile away, Hupp and Neece are opening a new thrift store in a strip mall at the intersection of Wabash and Chatham. Opening day is expected within a month.
Staff writer Dusty Rhodes contributed to this report