A Santa Fe nonprofit whose mission is to improve students’ literacy skills through mentoring is shattered by allegations of embezzlement and mismanagement of funds.
Board members of Mentoring Kids Works NM, formerly MATCH New Mexico, filed separate complaints against former director Louise Yakey and requested an investigation by the attorney general’s office.
“We are currently investigating the allegations,” Jerri Mares, director of communications and legislative affairs for the AG’s office, said Tuesday.
Yakey vehemently denied any wrongdoing.
“It was all above board,” she said. “All decisions were made in conjunction with the board members, and the board was very passive.”
In interviews, as well as in letters to the AG’s office, board members have described an environment in which they claim to have been left in the dark about financial and other matters.
“We weren’t getting a lot of information from Louise, which turned out to be the real problem,” said member Steven Goldstein, who joined the board about a year ago and filed one of the complaints against Yakey.
Meanwhile, a local foundation that awarded the nonprofit a $32,000 grant is seeking reimbursement, saying the nonprofit is in ‘substantial breach of contract’ for failing to perform private lessons during the fall semester 2021.
The Thomas R. Nickoloff Family Foundation had considered allowing the association to “close the breach” by carrying out the work in the spring semester of 2022. But the foundation withdrew its “unequivocal” consideration when the organization at nonprofit was “unwilling or unable” to meet the foundation’s conditions, including providing proof that it could carry out the work, administrator Tom Nickoloff wrote in an email obtained by The New Mexican.
“The Foundation does not believe that MKWNM can carry out the promised work – now or in the future – as we have received no evidence that your organization is financially viable or sustainable, or otherwise capable of organizing and carrying out the work. and to pay tutors/workers, and thus we sever all relationship between MKWNM and the Foundation,” wrote Nickoloff, who launched the foundation in 2017.
Nickoloff did not return messages seeking comment.
In addition to demanding its money back, the foundation insisted that the nonprofit “not use the name of the Foundation in any way, nor represent to anyone” that it has any affiliation with the foundation, Nickoloff wrote in his email.
Mentoring Kids Works NM, which places high school and middle school mentors in after-school programs with elementary students reading below skills, began about a decade ago as MATCH NM — an acronym for Mentoring and Tutoring Create Hope.
In a Nov. 29 letter to the attorney general’s office, board members Jennifer Gomez-Chavez and Julia Rosa Lopez Emslie wrote a review of banking records by the former board treasurer, which revealed many “serious concerns”.
Former Sandoval County Treasurer Laura Montoya, a candidate for state treasurer, conducted the internal audit. Montoya, who is good friends with the board members, said Thursday she agreed to serve only to review the nonprofit’s books.
“It was only so I could have read-only access to the bank account,” she said.
“When they asked me to do it, it was at a time when the executive director told them there would be $2 million from PED, the department of public education, and they wanted to make sure they had everything lined up so they could use this funding resource to mentor the kids,” she said.
State funding never materialized, but Montoya said he found many red flags in his review, ranging from no timesheets to questionable administrative payments.
“From the perspective of abuse and mismanagement of funds, I think there is a case for the AG to consider,” she said.
According to the letter from the two board members to the GA office, the nonprofit had raised more than $160,000 since Jan. 1, 2021, but only $16 was in the bank at the time Montoya said. examined the finances of the association.
After the review, the council removed Yakey’s access to the bank account, among other actions, the letter said.
“The bank has been advised to freeze the account and that no checks can be cashed by Yakey,” according to the letter, which noted that then-president William Buchsbaum resigned shortly after because he
disagreed with the council’s decision to remove access to Yakey until there was documentation to substantiate his actions.
Despite the board’s decision to deny Yakey access to association finances, the board found “three unauthorized checks made by Yakey after learning that she had been disqualified for several months,” the letter said. .
Gomez-Chavez and Lopez Emslie wrote that “the most alarming and immediate concern” is that all but three board members have resigned.
“We have several concerns and need the Attorney General’s office to help us resolve them,” they wrote. “Yakey has already opened another 501c3 which we believe is manipulating more people in our community and wasting their donations too.”
Gomez-Chavez was not available by phone but wrote in an email that the internal financial review triggered the request for investigation.
“We believe there are concerns about mismanagement of funds and abuse of authority by the then executive director,” she wrote.
Gomez-Chavez said Mentoring Kids Works has been a “great program” over the past few years.
“We are heartbroken that someone to whom we have entrusted the management of the program has made decisions without board approval that are of concern to all board members,” she wrote. “The challenges ahead of us relate to an individual’s lack of communication, leadership and transparency with the board and MKW’s goals.”
Goldstein said he filed a separate complaint with the attorney general’s office to fill in the gaps in the initial letter from Gomez-Chavez and Lopez Emslie.
In his complaint, Goldstein wrote that Mentoring Kids Works NM provided services to Socorro, Santa Fe and Taos when he joined the board.
“Due to malfeasance, subterfuge, embezzlement, and possible embezzlement…MKW does not currently serve any third-grade students in the state and is likely to be disbanded in the near future,” he said. he writes.
Yakey’s attorney, Gregory Ross, said in a statement Thursday that his client “did not wrongly benefit from a nickel of MKW funds.” Yakey went so far as to use her own money to pay student mentors, pursuing a “core mission” of educating New Mexico’s at-risk student population, he said.
He also said Yakey had not been paid since June, but was continuing to perform her duties.
“The complaint is a shotgun blast of unsubstantiated claims made by a rogue, former board member,” he said, referring to Goldstein.
“The former council member asks the Attorney General (and apparently the Santa Fe New Mexican) to investigate allegations “too numerous for the Commission to investigate on its own”. Complaint is misguided, filed without board approval [in accordance with its bylaws] and libelous,” Ross said. “We expect an investigation to fully vindicate Ms Yakey and the former chairman of the board.”
Buchsbaum, who served as chairman of the board for four years until his resignation in September, “expressly approved” every major financial decision made by the association, Ross said.
Buchsbaum, a retired investment adviser who is civically involved in the community, said an investigation should take place before anyone jumps to conclusions.
“I think it’s all in limbo, and there’s no finality to it, and I don’t know if it’s about at this point,” he said.
Buchsbaum questioned the validity of the allegations contained in the complaints. For example, he said, he never saw “anything close to $100,000” in the nonprofit’s bank account in the four years he was involved in the organization.
“Nobody knows all the facts,” he added. “They don’t know, I think, where the money went, how the money was spent, whether we spent it legally or illegally. They just shoot from the hip.