Cash and Power

A First Things First member gets a threatening letter after expressing conflict-of-interest concerns

According to its rhetoric, the statewide First Things First program marks an exciting advance for early-childhood development efforts.

But if local developments lend any clue, this particular sandbox may be a little too small.

That fact burst to light recently, when one member of a local First Things First governing board raised conflict-of-interest questions about the chairwoman of another board (see "A Small World," Currents, April 15)—and was promptly served with a cease-and-desist letter, straight from the offices of a high-powered Tucson attorney.

If you're thinking this doesn't exactly encourage strong and vigorous debate, you would be right—and the letter apparently fabricates at least one quote attributed to the supposed offender.

So what's up? Power. And money—gobs of it, in fact, relegated to various programs around the state, but largely controlled by a few key players, including the financially erratic United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona.

This all dates back to 2006, when Arizona voters passed a ballot initiative that added 80 cents to every pack of cigarettes, and steered the proceeds toward early-childhood development projects ranging from day-care improvement to providing support specialists for troubled homes.

This year alone, First Things First's Central Pima Regional Partnership Council—which includes Tucson—allocated about $8 million to various agencies.

Locally, a large chunk of that money is funneled through the United Way. This year the organization administered nearly 40 percent of funds awarded to Central Pima—and garnered about $490,000 for its work.

It should also be mentioned that First Things First and participating agencies gained an extra dose of pressure recently, when the state Legislature sent a proposition to November's ballot that would repeal the program and transfer its $350 million bankroll to the general fund.

All of this set the context for a confrontation that started in March with a presentation to the Central Pima council by Naomi Karp, who chairs the First Things First North Pima Regional Partnership Council. This year, North Pima awarded $1,766,223 in First Things First funds. Of that, more that 40 percent was allocated to the United Way.

It so happens that Karp is also employed by the United Way, as director of early childhood professional development.

One could be forgiven for thinking this is all a bit cozy, considering that Karp was appearing before the Central Pima council on behalf of her employer. At least it seemed that way to Mimi Gray, a Central Pima council member, and executive director of Community Extension Programs Inc.

Gray raised her concerns a month later at the April 7 meeting. "Naomi is the chair of North Council," Gray told the gathering. "She is now working for a primary grantee (the United Way), and I think that makes things a little murky ...

"I just felt like that was a relationship that really needed some reflection," Gray said. "... Is there a scope of influence that is not appropriate, that makes things a little too close? ... I just think it doesn't bode well in terms of scrutiny."

Karp wasn't at that meeting to field Gray's questions firsthand. Nonetheless, her displeasure became quite obvious in early May, when Gray received a blistering letter from the law firm Karp and Weiss, to which Naomi Karp's husband is a consulting attorney.

Signed by fellow lawyer Stephen Weiss, the letter refers to that April meeting, claiming that Gray, "as a member of that Council, made statements and engaged in conversations with other Council members about Mrs. Karp and what you perceive to her 'conflict of interest.' These statements and innuendos, none of which are based in fact, maligned my client's honesty, integrity and reputation. In short, your statements defamed Mrs. Karp's impeccable character."

Weiss points out that an assistant Arizona attorney general found no conflict of interest, but Gray "continued to cast aspersions, degrade and disgrace Mrs. Karp's character and reputation by referring to 'alleged scandals' that could result from her employment as director of the grant from the Central Pima Council."

That incendiary "alleged scandals" comment appears to have been plucked from thin air. Contacted by phone, Gray doesn't recall saying it at the April meeting. I was there, too, and I thoroughly scanned my recording of that meeting. I could find no utterance of those words.

So I called Weiss, to learn from whence that comment came. He said it was his "understanding" that the phrase was used at the meeting by Gray. When informed that it wasn't, Weiss clammed up. As for the defamation charge, "I think the letter speaks for itself," said Weiss.

Naomi Karp didn't return several phone calls seeking comment. I was also unable to learn whether the United Way was involved with the letter; LaVonne Douville, the agency's vice president for community development, didn't return a phone call seeking comment.

For her part, Mimi Gray doesn't regret airing her concerns. "I was just asking a question that needed to be asked," she says, adding that the letter, and Karp's subsequent appearance at the May meeting to denounce her comments, amounted to "overkill."

But what does this nasty episode portend for a program beset with potential conflicts of interest?

"I think people will still be able to speak their opinions," says Diane Umstead, First Thing First's regional manager for Southeastern Arizona. As for Karp's overlapping roles, "there has never been anything that has been uncharacteristic about her professionalism and her way of handling herself in separating those two."

Rhian Evans Allvin is executive director of First Things First. She agrees with Umstead. "We obviously take conflicts of interest very seriously," Allvin says, noting that Naomi Karp's role received a thorough vetting. "I will say that I don't believe Naomi has a conflict of interest, legally or otherwise. But I will also say that we welcome public debate, and we're not going to shy away or hide from anything.

"I find the entire situation unfortunate on so many levels," says Allvin. "... I find it unfortunate that the situation between the two of them has gotten to this point."

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