The city board overseeing economic development funds requested detailed financial information from the Odessa Hispanic Chamber of Commerce as part of a review underway that comes as the struggling organization prepares to seek new public funding following the abrupt removal of its leaders last month.
The Odessa Development Corporation asked for information including a third-party audit, a copy of the organization’s bylaws and policies, and an explanation of any relationship between the city-funded nonprofit and a charity that lists the same city office as its address.
ODC President Betsy Triplett-Hurt said the city has never required a third-party audit of the Hispanic Chamber — a revelation that emerged during the review. She said an outside accounting firm handles the organization’s bookkeeping but the scope of that work does not include the level of detail that an audit would, such as connecting spending to receipts.
“We just don’t have that assurance, that protection of taxpayers’ money,” Triplett-Hurt said. “And we did not realize until all this came about that their contract does not require them to have an audit. Shame on us. We didn’t realize the contract doesn’t require it. So why should they? And we don’t know why it doesn’t.”
Triplett-Hurt said the Hispanic Chamber is the only organization funded by the ODC that doesn’t get the independent audits.
Hispanic Chamber officials say they are cooperating with the review while the organization conducts its own investigation that seeks to answer “if any misconduct was done by past leadership,” as the chamber’s Interim CEO and Chair Ben Rubio described it at a recent press conference.
Public funds budgeted for the Hispanic Chamber this year totaled more than $305,000, paid in monthly installments.
Rubio said the organization has routinely reported financial information to the city and will cooperate with the review.
“Anything the city is going to ask for we are going to try our best to give them,” Rubio said. “We are cooperating 100 percent with the city and the ODC.”
The former CEO Price Arredondo, who was abruptly fired from his paid post on March 8, has denied any wrongdoing. Arredondo’s ouster came just before he was set to present a proposal to the ODC for changes to the Hispanic Chamber that would have included ending the paid position heading the Mexico Initiatives, an effort to build business ties with Mexico.
Other new board members said they were also pushed out at the meeting, an account remaining Hispanic Chamber officials have disputed. Hispanic Chamber officials have not explained the reason for Arredondo’s removal.
The shake-up prompted concern by ODC board members about who was in charge of the Hispanic Chamber and how money was being spent.
Until this month, the paid position was filled by Raymond Chavez, who was paid about $58,000 by the city this year for six months of work. The project served as a lifeline for the Hispanic Chamber when Chavez founded it in 2014.
But early supporters including Mayor David Turner and some ODC board members have since criticized poor management by the Hispanic Chamber and a struggle documenting results.
Rubio, who says he is volunteering his time leading the organization, said there is no financial connection between the Hispanic Chamber and the Odessa Hispanic Chamber Charitable Foundation — meaning no public money goes to the charity — and that he and others who serve on the charity do not get paid. Public documents list Chavez as the president of the charity.
Turner said he did not know about the charity with the same address listed as the Hispanic Chamber.
“Those are questions that certainly need to be asked,” Turner said. “It may be totally innocent, and that’s fine. But if you have mail coming to an organization that’s titled something else, it needs to be a public record. All our books are public record.”
The ODC meets Thursday and is scheduled to the upcoming budgeting process for the coming fiscal year, when it’s expected that Hispanic Chamber officials will request new funding.
Rubio, at a Thursday news conference where he declined to take questions, asked Odessans for patience and promised to release the findings of the Hispanic Chamber’s investigation once it’s complete.
Interim City Attorney Gary Landers said he is leading “negotiations” between the city and the Hispanic Chamber that “are moving along well” but declined to discuss details of those talks.
“We’ll be able to verify where all the public money went and where it’s been accounted for,” Landers said.
An audit by a third-party may take longer than the 60-day period the organization had per its contract with the city before its public funding stops.
Landers and Triplett-Hurt said they anticipated an outcome of the review would be greater consistency in the way organizations funded through the ODC report back to the city.
“The good that’s coming out of all of this is everything is going to be straightened out, and everything will be done as it should be,” Triplett-Hurt said.