Iberis Seeks Forensic Audit Into ‘Disturbing Conditions’

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Michael Iberis witnesses every day how opportunity comes from adversity.

As executive director of Second Harvest Food Bank of the Mahoning Valley, his mission is to distribute food to hunger-relief organizations that help 15,000 individuals and families overcome adversity every week.

Now that mission is expanding as Second Harvest prepares to build and operate its first feeding site. It’s an opportunity that Iberis is gratified to be presented despite the adversity from which it arose – “disturbing conditions,” as he describes the impetus, at St. Vincent de Paul’s soup kitchen in downtown Youngstown.

After the soup kitchen’s manager walked out in early December over disputes with the organization’s president – and was accompanied by longtime volunteers – St. Vincent de Paul temporarily shut down its feeding site at 208 W. Front St.

The apparent management problems prompted an anonymous benefactor to donate $750,000 to Second Harvest to fund the construction and operation of its own soup kitchen at 551 Mahoning Ave. across the river from downtown.

“We will be the first Feeding America food bank in Ohio to operate a feeding site but not the first in the United States,” Iberis says.

Ralph “Skip” Barone, who directed St. Vincent de Paul’s soup kitchen until his abrupt resignation, will manage the Second Harvest feeding site, which will be named “Skip’s Café” in honor of Barone.

If that sounds like two nonprofits that do the same work competing head-to-head, they likely will once Skip’s Café opens in the second quarter. But there will be differences in how the soup kitchens operate, Iberis promises, both in terms of the depth of social services offered and, significantly, in fiscal accountability.

“As an advocate for hungry people and as a citizen of the community, I think it would be in the best interest of St. Vincent de Paul and more importantly, the community, to be transparent and conduct a forensic audit,” Iberis asserts.

“It certainly would take away any thoughts of people in the community thinking there’s a problem here,” he says. “If I was under a cloud, I would want to make sure I shed light on any issue that people are concerned about.”

Iberis is quick to stipulate that he has no knowledge of any criminal activity at the Mahoning County District of the St. Vincent de Paul Society since its former bookkeeper was convicted in 2010 of stealing nearly $300,000 from the religious lay charity.

The theft and forgery perpetrated by Diane M. Terry, who previously had been convicted of stealing $500,000 from the former Mahoning County Tuberculosis Clinic, came to the attention of the society’s board in April 2007 when Iberis “began to notice discrepancies between two accounts [Second Harvest] does business with that belong to the St. Vincent de Paul Society,” according to court documents.

Ever since, Iberis has been calling for St. Vincent de Paul to perform audits, he says, but to no avail.

“We were told at that time [2007] that audits would be done – they hadn’t been done in 20 years from what we were told. So we said we would require audits before we could provide them with any more food. And unfortunately those audits never came,” Iberis says.

St. Vincent de Paul also failed to file IRS-required 990 documents and as a result lost its certification as a 501(c)3 nonprofit.

Still, its work in Mahoning County continues and at the soup kitchen it’s dinner as usual, says the society’s interim president, Thomas Williams. Patrons have seen few changes beyond some new faces behind the counter, including new kitchen manager Wayne Murray.

“The soup kitchen runs very well and we plan on keeping it open and running well,” Williams says.

“We’ve had a lot of volunteers from the past stick around and a lot of new ones come in. Everybody who’s been on the calendar has shown up,” Murray adds.

Rod Jennings says he’s been coming to the society’s soup kitchen for several years. “Everything’s the same,” he confirms. “The only thing people are really missing are the sack lunches but, other than that, it’s been the same food and quality of service.”

The former president of St. Vincent de Paul prohibited patrons from taking food out of the soup kitchen, one of the points of contention that led to the staff walkout.

At Skip’s Cafe, take-out containers will be permitted, says Barone. And the feeding site will tap into community resources and “experts who are familiar with the Ohio Benefits Bank and can steer people in the proper direction to get more help,” he adds.

“At my previous employment, I was very familiar with the people we served. I became friends with them, heard their stories and listened to the things they needed and I tried, in a very limited way, to be of some service to them. So this is going to expand that, create the whole concept of helping them.”

Assistance could include help in obtaining eyeglasses, dental work or hearing aids, getting to doctor’s appointments “or just getting through all the myriad of paperwork that has to be done to collect disability,” Barone says.

Skip’s Café will have the capacity to feed 204 patrons at tables that seat six in a dining room designed to be warm and welcoming, not institutional.

St. Vincent de Paul feeds from 185 to 215 on any given day, says the society’s interim president.

The Second Harvest feeding site “won’t impact how we operate but I don’t know how it will impact the numbers we get,” says Williams.

“What if the people get to eat twice? We’re OK with that.”

Editor’s Note: Josh Medore contributed reporting to this story.

Pictured: Michael Iberis shows a rendering of the feeding site Second Harvest Food Bank plans to open in the second quarter.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.