By Steve Hunley

The Nashville Tennessean has performed a real public service by detailing the hemorrhage of money that has flowed out of Tennessee’s Department of Human Services.  Comptroller Justin Wilson has released information about shocking abuses that not only boggle the mind, but confound the imagination.  The Tennessee DHS presides over an $80 million program designed to feed needy and hungry children.  Wilson told a legislative panel the DHS is in “denial” and refuses to acknowledge the problems inside the department.  Wilson said the DHS doesn’t “acknowledge there is a problem.”  Comptroller Wilson was gentlemanly; his Chief of Staff, Jason Mumpower was quite plainspoken when he said, “I think that if we were to describe them in their best light we would describe them as unresponsive, and if we were to describe them in a worse light we could describe them as misleading or false.”

Wilson identified $11.4 million in two programs spending state and federal tax dollars rife with fraud and abuse.  One Nashville daycare filed documents that were falsified in order to receive federal tax dollars for the food program; the state Comptroller’s office has questioned payments totaling $84,000 to the center.  The executive director of an allegedly nonprofit center in Clarksville was discovered to have diverted federal tax dollars for her own benefit, including the construction of a $38,000 gazebo for her home.  The Chief Executive Officer of a Camden, Tennessee “charity” has been charged after it came to light she and her daughter received more than $700,000 in payments; the CEO also gave herself and her daughter “bonuses” of about $100,000.  While she was at it, the Camden woman built a new deck on her home, remodeled a home office, paid for “meals, hotel movies, late credit card fees, and cable and internet services.”

One of the most egregious examples is that of Jeannette Jives-Nealy who describes herself as a  “pastor-prophetess” of the Kingdom Dominion World Ministries, Inc. in Memphis.  Pastor-prophetess Jives-Nealy allegedly stole $162,000 from a state program that was supposed to feed hungry children.  As it turns out, it would have been more fitting to have referred to her as a pastor-profitess.

The Profitess received a grant to feed children through her ministry, supposedly to provide free meals for needy kids.  Ms. Jives-Nealy swore up and down she had fed thousands of hungry young’uns, but the investigation indicated every penny she received was converted to her personal use.  Not only did Ms. Nealy never provide the DHS with any kind of credentials (except maybe that she was a profitess) or any documentation.  That means she never demonstrated she was buying, preparing and serving food to anyone.  When asked about her efforts, the Profitess nimbly replied her records had been destroyed by a timely flood that very day.  Of course investigators found not even a wet spot when looking for the alleged flash flood that evidently struck only the Profitess’s building in Memphis.  The Prophetess/Profitess, attired in royal purple and sporting three inch long fingernails had gotten her money up front from the State of Tennessee.  Worse, this wasn’t Ms. Nealy’s first time at the rodeo, as she had apparently defrauded another government program in Florida and served time in prison.

Clearly the Tennessee DHS did not bother to send staffers to check on the recipients of all these tax dollars to see if anybody was fixing food and feeding hungry kids.  It is also readily apparent the department wasn’t doing background checks on the folks seeking the money to begin with.  I think it should be a requirement to do a background check on any person heading an organization that claims it exists solely for the benefit of children.  Obviously, there needs to be a tightening of the criteria for those receiving state grants, as well as someone checking occasionally to actually see that the taxpayer’s money is being spent as it was intended.  Satire Alert: Why in the world is the state giving cash advances?  Why not just give these people an ATM card?

This episode shows both the best and worst of government in action.  The worst is clearly the Tennessee Department of Human Services; the best is the vigilance and honesty of Comptroller Justin Wilson and his office. When any governmental agency, just like a private business, grows lazy and complacent, things begin to fall apart.  Delivery of services is an important part of government and people have come to be rightly suspicious of bloated social programs and the do-gooders, who are usually preoccupied with tearing down business, merely murmur some vague excuse.  There is no excuse for this sort of abuse and fraud and one really good question is why does Commissioner Raquel Hatter, head of the Tennessee DHS, still have a job?  The governor ought to take swift action and streamline a few simple things to make sure your tax dollars aren’t spit into the wind.

Ultimately the buck stops with Bill Haslam and we need to do a better job of minding the store.