A Hawaiian Gardens food bank and its director, a former city councilman, are under state and local investigation after the agency could not account for how it had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars intended to feed the poor.
A revealing document filed in court by an investigator from the Los Angeles County district attorney's office outlines a series of allegations against the food bank, which received $30,000 a month from a local foundation.
Among the allegations: Checks for large amounts continually were made out to cash and endorsed by director Carlos Navejas; supposed receipts for as much as $600 each in food purchases led to a small market whose employees said not only had they never sold food to food bank representatives, but in seven years the store had never made a sale larger than $40; another group of receipts for $12,475 worth of toys and clothing led the investigator to the apartment of a food bank employee's son who said he had never sold anything to the agency.
Navejas, director of the Hawaiian Gardens Social Services Agency, is the husband of Hawaiian Gardens Councilwoman Kathleen Navejas. In addition to using several aliases during financial transactions, Carlos Navejas also has claimed three different Social Security numbers over the years, according the documents, which were filed in Los Angeles Municipal Court as part of a request for a search warrant.
The investigation, launched by the state attorney general's office earlier this year, includes a probe into the Irving Moskowitz Foundation, which was giving the food bank the $30,000 a month until this summer. Documents did not say why investigators were looking into the foundation.
"I believe that HGSSA . . . was spending only a fraction of that money on food for the poor," wrote Jess Gomez, a senior investigator with the district attorney's office
For a relatively small food bank--serving about 600 families in a city of 14,000--$30,000 a month was an enormous budget, according to comments in the documents made by Doris Bloch, executive director of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, which distributes goods to hundreds of such pantries across the area.
"Even allowing a reasonable amount of money for overhead," the documents read, "Ms. Bloch said it is inconceivable the Hawaiian Gardens agency could have distributed such a large amount of food per month. She added that her largest food pantry spends $30,000 annually."
The regional food bank distributes its donated goods to smaller banks and soup kitchens at a cost of 12 cents per pound--a fraction of what it would cost at the retail market named on the receipts, Bloch said, adding that $30,000 could buy about 250,000 pounds of food through her agency.
Instead of making substantial purchases at the regional food bank, where Navejas' organization had an account from 1986 to 1993, the Hawaiian Gardens agency bought so little from the larger food bank that Bloch canceled its account for lack of activity.
Hawaiian Gardens Social Service Agency purchased food at the regional bank just seven times since 1986, according to the documents, three times in 1992 for a total of $1,106, and four times in 1993, spending $772.54.
Navejas, in an interview, denied any wrongdoing. He described the regional food bank's inventory as "limited not only as to what you can get, but in what quantity," and said he had to buy from retail outlets in order to ensure each family he served received the same items.
Investigators on the case declined to comment.
As for the checks made out to cash, he said all the cash was used to purchase food. While some of the receipts for those purchases had been lost "or got destroyed in the rain," Navejas said, his agency had made a full accounting of expenditures.
Navejas said he believed the Moskowitz Foundation had stopped funding his agency, and had encouraged the investigation, because his council member wife was not supporting a proposal by Irving Moskowitz to build a card club in the city. The foundation in his name operates a bingo parlor in the city.
Moskowitz Foundation attorney Beryl Weiner, the foundation's attorney, said his client never expected Kathleen Navejas' support for the club, which goes to a vote today. And, he said, the foundation cut off funds to the food bank when it became clear that "the amount of money that the foundation had been providing Mr. Navejas . . . could provide for twice as many families," or more, than were being served.
Weiner said the foundation cut off the payments to Navejas' agency when it learned of the state's investigation.