By M.R. KROPKO, Associated Press Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) - A state audit released on Thursday accuses a Head Start program of padding enrollment figures and inaccurately billing for purchases and services to defraud Ohio of nearly $4.5 million.
State Auditor Jim Petro said the special audit found that the Ministerial Day Care Association, a Head Start nonprofit agency in Cuyahoga County, created false records to receive additional grant funding.
Head Start is a federally funded program run through the Ohio Department of Education's Early Childhood Education Office.
Petro also accused Ministerial Day Care of defrauding private day care providers, paying for computer systems that did not work and receiving personal items paid for with public funds.
"I consider this a crime against children," Petro said. "We found a pattern of corruption leading to lost opportunities for hundreds of children who could have been enrolled in Head Start in Cuyahoga County."
Messages were left Thursday for Ministerial Day Care Executive Director Verneda Bentley and Dottie Howe, a state education spokeswoman.
Of the audit's findings, about $2.2 million was linked to allegedly erroneous child enrollment figures during the grant year Aug. 1, 1997, to July 31, 1998. Auditors concluded that the agency inflated enrollment by more than 600 children.
Some children were double or triple counted on rosters, were ineligible due to Head Start age limits or did not attend day care centers, according to the audit.
Petro also recommended that the education department develop procedures to monitor Head Start enrollment and review financial information from service providers.
Auditors found that the department, which requested the audit, did not adequately monitor the day care's enrollment and budget information.
Petro said the department made only one visit to the day care during the 1997-1998 grant year and did not review child enrollment or eligibility data.
The audit has been referred to Ohio's attorney general, the U.S. attorney's office, FBI, inspector general of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Cuyahoga County prosecutor.
The investigation began after Gov. Bob Taft and the department received an anonymous letter from someone who claimed to have assisted in falsifying names on Ministerial Day Care Association's records for Head Start enrollment.