Providence ‘word gap’ program among victims of former nonprofit official’s theft

Crime
provplan_359711

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A high-profile city program that seeks to help low-income kids was among the victims of a scheme that has led to a former finance director of the nonprofit Providence Plan to agree to plead guilty to wire fraud.

A spokesperson for Mayor Jorge Elorza confirmed Friday that Charles Denno was responsible for taking $131,000 from Providence Talks, a city-run program whose $5-million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies is managed by the Providence Plan.

Denno has agreed to plead guilty to write fraud for his role in stealing more than $500,000 from his former employer, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office. Denno is accused of fraudulently converting the funds for his personal use.

Providence Talks seeks to close the so-called “word gap” between poor and more affluent children by providing families with “word pedometers” to track the number of words children hear  during their first few years of life and following up with in-home visitation services. The program has enrolled more than 500 families.

The program, which has received glowing coverage from The New Yorker and The Economist, received the $5-million start-up grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies in 2013.

Jim Berson, Providence Plan’s interim executive director, told Eyewitness News the organization is “committed to restitution.” Emily Crowell, a spokesperson for Elorza, said service at Providence Talks was not interrupted by Denno’s actions.

Founded in 1992, The Providence Plan is a 501(c)3 nonprofit that was established to assist with the “preparation of a comprehensive strategy for alleviating poverty in the capital city of Providence,” according to annual corporation filings with the secretary of state’s office.

In a letter to the organization’s supporters in September, Richard Spies, the chair of Providence Plan’s board of directors, said a tip that an employee had suffered “significant gambling losses” led the organization to discover “hundreds of thousands of dollars” were missing from its coffers.

Spies said outside lawyers hired by the organization to review several questionable expenditures confirmed that checks were forged by an employee and “the employee was also in a position to cover his tracks through various accounting entries.”

Prosecutors say Denno’s scheme, which lasted from 2012 until July 2016, involved issuing Providence Plan checks to CMG Enterprises, an outside entity he owned. They say he made multiple withdrawals from CMG’s bank accounts, including using the ATM at Twin River Casino.

“The Providence Plan receives a tremendous amount of federal, state and private funds each year for a laudable purpose: to provide educational and other programs to children and adults who would otherwise not have access to them,” U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha said in a statement. “Every dollar the defendant stole – and he stole an outlandish amount – could have served someone who really needed it. It is precisely this type of conduct that gives rise to unwarranted public cynicism regarding such worthy programs.”

Continue the discussion on FacebookDan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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