Friday, March 19, 2004 | 9:09 a.m.
Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said Thursday he will suggest involving Congress to fix problems at the Las Vegas Valley's largest nonprofit agency if federal and state inquiries that kick off next month don't bring results.
Ensign met with the Sun to talk about recent turmoil at the Economic Opportunity Board, a $60 million agency facing problems in recent weeks that include $2.1 million in unaccounted-for funds, federal inquiries about its Head Start program and the loss of two of its top people.
The senator said he supports two probes brought on by problems in EOB's child care assistance and early-childhood programs -- but will consider going further in the coming weeks. Clark County officials and leaders with United Way -- one of the few private funding sources for EOB -- have also expressed interest in reviewing the agency's books and programs.
"The more light we can shine on this, the better," Ensign said. "We need bright sunshine to see where the dollars are spent and ... the taxpayer needs more accountability."
Ensign sits on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, which oversees some of the funds EOB receives. He said he would be meeting with Sen. Judd Greg, R-N.H., committee chairman, to discuss the EOB's problems and possible congressional reforms needed to provide more oversight.
Ensign also said he would ask for an inspector general or General Accounting Office investigation if the inquiries set to begin in the first week of April drag on or don't produce results.
The EOB was created in 1964 to combat poverty and help the community with programs such as child care, senior day care, job training and alcohol and drug addiction treatment.
Some of the responsibility for the current problems facing EOB may lie with Congress itself, Ensign said.
"Once you get this size -- and I blame Congress for this -- if you don't hold agencies accountable, a lot of bad things can happen," he said.
But he stopped short of making specific recommendations.
"Did Congress create this monster or was it created administratively? Do we need congressional reform?
"I don't know -- we're still in the question-and-answer phase."
The rest of Nevada's congressional delegation also weighed in on the issue, saying they would be closely monitoring inquiries into the agency.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., issued this statement: "It's important that the federal agencies keep a close eye on how tax money is spent, so we can all feel confident that funding is getting to the programs we've approved.
"I'm glad Sen. Ensign is looking into this, and I'll be following the issue closely as well," he said.
Adam Mayberry, spokesman for Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., said Porter hoped that upcoming inquiries "help explain and provide some solutions."
And Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., said the "investigations need to be done quickly and thoroughly."
"Let's get this situation under control," Berkley said. "This cannot happen again."
At the same time, Berkley said, "Too many people depend on (EOB's) services ... It is very important that they don't sacrifice the programs due to mismanagement."
A memo obtained by the Sun suggests that cutbacks are possible in the coming weeks for a program that provides senior day care at the Hollyhock and Lied centers.
According to the memo that Douglas R. Bell, Clark County's manager of community resources management, sent to County Manager Thom Reilly, two top EOB people spoke with Bell on March 9 "about what could be done to staunch the red ink in the operation" of the centers.
Possible changes discussed include cutting back staff and staff hours -- and closing one or both of the centers.
Last week Claude Logan, chairman of the board for EOB, said he would be receiving a plan from Mary Jo Greenlee, administrator of the senior centers, about how to cut costs. Greenlee was at the March 9 meeting, according to the memo.
State Sen. Joe Neal, D-North Las Vegas, an EOB board member, said Thursday he was "not aware" of Greenlee's plan. He also said he was "not answering any questions about any particular program" -- but then said that employees at Hollyhock had been placed on an on-call basis in recent weeks because there were too few senior citizens using the center to have those employees working full-time.
When asked about Ensign's statements, Neal said, "He should sit down and talk with Halliburton instead of EOB.
"Nobody's stealing money here like they are in that ... crowd -- that's where he could be more useful."