- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 14, 2005

The former budget chief for one of the District’s largest nonprofit social service organizations is suing to be reinstated to his job, saying he was fired after co-workers saw him cooperating with the FBI during a probe into financial mismanagement.

Mohammad Amin Kakeh said he was wrongfully terminated from his post at United Planning Organization (UPO) in June 2004, hours after he met with federal investigators, according to a whistleblower complaint filed last month in U.S. District Court in the District.

Mr. Kakeh, of Springfield, was hired as UPO controller in 1998 to manage the group’s budget, oversee the audit process and advise executives on financial matters.

UPO is one of the District’s largest and most prominent nonprofit. Established in 1962, it provides services for the elderly and Head Start.

Last year, UPO came under scrutiny over questions about its financial management. Auditors for the Corporation for National and Community Service questioned more than $160,000 in expenditures by the organization under a foster grandparents grant, in which senior citizens mentored D.C. youths.

In his complaint, Mr. Kakeh says he learned of suspected “gross mismanagement” within UPO in 2003 and disclosed his concerns in several meetings with federal and D.C. auditors and investigators.

His complaint cites “exorbitant” cell phone bills; $50,000 for parking tickets, vehicle fines, consulting services and travel; and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on the use of a chartered fishing boat and luxury vehicles.

In a statement issued through an attorney, UPO said: “United Planning Organization denies all charges raised by the former employee. UPO has filed an ‘Answer to the Complaint’ and will vigorously defend its position in court.”

In legal filings, the organization disputed Mr. Kakeh’s claim that he was fired for talking with investigators.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office confirmed a federal investigation into UPO last year and said authorities ultimately declined to file charges.

In a follow-up federal report, the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Office of Inspector General found that since March 2004, UPO has “taken a number of actions” in response to outside inquiries by D.C. and federal officials.

The report shows that UPO fired at least two employees, replaced several members of its board of directors and implemented new policies for out-of-town travel and the use of cell phones and vehicles.

In a June 30 legal filing, UPO disputed that Mr. Kakeh’s dismissal was retribution for his cooperation with outside investigators.

Attorneys for UPO said Mr. Kakeh was notified June 2, 2004, that his position was “abolished pursuant to a reduction in force.” UPO also stated in legal documents that any actions taken concerning Mr. Kakeh’s employment “were done for non-discriminatory, valid and legitimate reasons.”

In his complaint, Mr. Kakeh states that on June 2, 2004, he escorted an FBI agent and an investigator for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services into the UPO building “in plain view and during working hours” to discuss “fraud, waste and abuse.”

Later that day, Mr. Kakeh says, he received a letter from UPO notifying him that he was being fired.

Mr. Kakeh’s attorney, Omar Vincent Melehy, said last week that his client also filed a complaint with the D.C. Office of Human Rights to protest his dismissal. The lawsuit, initially filed in D.C. Superior Court on May 31, has been transferred to U.S. District Court.

Benjamin Jennings, a former UPO executive director, also filed a lawsuit against UPO last year, saying he was terminated “without cause” and that he has suffered professionally and emotionally because of “false accusations” of financial mismanagement under his watch.

In a counter-lawsuit, UPO blames Mr. Jennings for improper credit card charges, unauthorized loans to community groups and several chartered fishing trips for which the organization had paid. UPO is seeking $5 million in damages.

Mr. Jennings could not be reached for comment, and his attorney did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

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