Copyright 2005 The San Diego Union-Tribune
The San Diego Union-Tribune

February 27, 2005 Sunday

SECTION: NEWS; Pg. A-1

LENGTH: 1251 words

HEADLINE: Food bank practices more loose than first disclosed

BYLINE: Jeff McDonald, STAFF WRITER, Union-Tribune library researcher Cecelia Iniguez contributed to this report.

BODY:


Management practices at the San Diego Food Bank were much looser than previously disclosed, according to documents and other information obtained last week by The San Diego Union-Tribune.

In addition, food bank officials acknowledged late last week that six of the top seven participants in the charitable food-distribution program have now been expelled, suspended or had their accounts placed on hold. Combined, those obscure ministries collected 638 tons of groceries meant for the poor -- almost 45 percent of the program's goods handed out in the last six months of 2004.

The newspaper reported Feb. 6 that the food bank's charitable food distribution program had delivered hundreds of tons of products to little-known charities without making sure the merchandise was given to the needy.

Since then, the newspaper has learned that:

o A pastor who withdrew more goods than any other agency operates a retail store in Imperial Beach. Owning a grocery business is a major breach of food bank policy.

o Internal food bank documents show that for years one questionable charity was allowed to rack up tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid fees, another violation. At one point, Zeev Buchler's tiny nonprofit owed nearly $51,000.

o A San Diego businessman told the Union-Tribune last week that he routinely purchased food bank products from dishonest ministries and sold them in a discount store he owned.

That businessman said he stopped the practice four years ago, after his conscience got the better of him. He said he told food bank officials what he had done and named the charity operators who sold him canned goods, laundry soap and other donations that were supposed to go to needy families.

But even after his confession, he said, the food bank allowed the violators to continue withdrawing merchandise.

"I stepped up to the plate four years ago and nothing was being done about it," said the shopkeeper, who asked that his name not be published for fear of retribution from food bank cheats or from prosecutors. It is a federal crime to sell donations designated for hunger-relief efforts.

"These guys had vans in the streets selling that merchandise," he said.

The newspaper's investigation previously found that food bank officials failed to tighten oversight even after two employees and independent auditors warned managers that theft was a serious problem.

Donations were handed over to people whose backgrounds include a criminal conviction, multiple lawsuits, court orders and bankruptcy. Two participants were involved in businesses that sold groceries, the investigation found.

Food bank officials continue to downplay the extent of the problems, saying they were limited to relatively few organizations and that officials did their best to respond to reports of wrongdoing.

Peter Callstrom, hired as the food bank general manager last month, declined to discuss the agency's prior business practices. "The past is past," he said. "I'm looking forward to the future."

Officials from the Neighborhood House Association, which runs the food bank and other social-service programs in San Diego County, steered questions to a public-relations consultant.

Scott Maloni of Public Policy Strategies said Friday that the apparent food bank abuse was "isolated" and involved only "a handful of groups."

But the documents obtained last week show that theft and inadequate oversight have been a persistent issue at the food bank for at least 10 years.

Buchler, for example, was granted what amounted to a revolving charge account at the food bank, records show. Other agencies also were permitted to take food without paying all the fees, which help cover the food bank's operational costs.

Mario Aguirre, the pastor of a South Bay ministry called New Life International, collected 225 tons of food bank products in the last half of 2004, more than any other agency. He runs Buy 4 Less in an Imperial Beach strip mall, according to court records. The small shop offers many of the same items distributed by the food bank.

Aguirre has collected an additional 15 tons from the food bank since Jan. 1.

On Thursday, the food bank said it placed New Life's account "on hold" Feb. 9 -- two weeks after food bank acting general manager Jim Greene had personally vouched for Aguirre.

Aguirre said he has never profited from his food bank withdrawals, and added that he is meeting with the food bank this week to sort everything out.

Auditors from America's Second Harvest, the national food-distribution charity that sanctions the San Diego Food Bank and 210 other affiliates, cited the local food bank last year for shoddy record-keeping and failing to make sure goods were going where they are needed.

Historically, the food bank has invested less effort investigating where donations end up than in moving goods through its Miramar warehouse. Most goods handed out in the charitable food program are donated by manufacturers who receive tax breaks of up to half the products' retail value.

The San Diego Food Bank distributes more than 6,500 tons of food and groceries each year.

The charitable food effort, the most popular of the agency's four programs, gives away approximately 2,500 tons a year. All of it is free, but participants pay a shared maintenance fee of up to 18 cents a pound.

Buchler, who operated a charity called Chabad Chai, repeatedly declined requests for an interview to discuss where he got the money to pay his fees, which some years came to more than $100,000.

Court records show Buchler was being sued for back rent on a discount shop he ran on El Cajon Boulevard at the same time he owed the San Diego Food Bank tens of thousands of dollars.

Rabbi Josef Fradkin said Buchler was a longtime volunteer for Chabad of San Diego, the well-known Jewish center that runs a synagogue and a private school in Scripps Ranch and other projects.

Chabad removed Buchler from all food bank accounts last month, hours after the Union-Tribune asked Fradkin about where the donations were being distributed. Buchler still owes the food bank $1,200, Callstrom said.

Chabad of San Diego put Buchler in charge of a food bank account it opened in the late 1980s to assist Russian immigrant families. But the program has been inactive for more than a decade, Fradkin said.

Chabad officials said they had no idea that Buchler was still withdrawing huge amounts of food and other products from the food bank. However, a July 2000 letter from the food bank to Rabbi Yonah Fradkin, Josef's father, specifically called on the elder Fradkin to help the food bank collect almost $40,000 Buchler owed at that time.

Josef Fradkin said last week that Chabad responded to the letter by telling the food bank it wasn't responsible for the debt.

"What was alarming at that time was that we did not know this was happening," he said. "When (the food bank) came to us asking for payment, they were told very clearly that this was not a Chabad operation."

The Chabad also directed the food bank to close any and all Chabad accounts, Fradkin said.

"Having not heard from them in five years, we can assume that this was not a problem," he said.

The food bank is waiting for results of another audit performed by America's Second Harvest this month. Callstrom has pledged to make those findings public.

Union-Tribune library researcher Cecelia Iniguez contributed to this report.

MORE ONLINE

The Union-Tribune's special report on the San Diego Food Bank can be found at uniontribune.com/news/more.html

Jeff McDonald: (619) 542-4585; jeff.mcdonald@uniontrib.com

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