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Officials hopeful for Advantage Group's future after setback

Director: Political event was ‘innocent mistake’

Published: Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013 11:37 p.m. CDT • Updated: Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013 11:44 p.m. CDT

Two members of the McHenry County Mental Health Board involved with the latest controversy to hit The Advantage Group said they hope it doesn’t further hamper its ability to stay afloat.

The agency, which helps young adults with substance abuse problems, had its Mental Health Board funding suspended last year after an audit revealed numerous irregularities.

A state investigation started shortly thereafter and is ongoing.

And it was revealed last week that the real reason why The Advantage Group abruptly withdrew a $49,000 emergency funding request is because it likely violated its nonprofit status by endorsing local political candidates.

Mental Health Board President Robert Routzahn privately persuaded the agency to withdraw the request after learning about the issue from fellow member Paula Yensen. Yensen made it public at the board’s Tuesday meeting, along with concerns about the compensation of its director.

The latest controversy came forth as the board moved to start working with TAG to resolve the audit issues in a step toward re-establishing funding from the board’s property-tax levy.

Both Routzahn and Yensen said the county has a vested interest in TAG’s survival. Routzahn said the agency is the only one equipped to provide immediate, same-day help for adolescents with alcohol- or drug-dependency issues.

“My main concern is a continuity of services for kids who need to see someone that very day. Right now, TAG is truly the only game in town,” Routzahn said.

Yensen revealed at Tuesday’s board meeting that TAG was supporting political candidates on its Facebook page, and earlier this month hosted a luncheon for Republican sheriff’s candidate Bill Prim at its Crystal Lake headquarters. Tax law forbids 501(c)(3) agencies from lobbying for or against political candidates.

Pat Owens, TAG’s executive director, called the luncheon a “totally innocent mistake” made in an effort to meet community leaders.

“We’ve done everything we could to let community leaders know who we are, and that was our intent,” Owens said Friday. “We endorse no one, and we’ve attempted to remain unaligned for the past 26 years.”

Yensen, a McHenry County Board member who holds its voting seat on the Mental Health Board, said the situation could end up a beneficial learning experience for both sides, and said TAG’s “glass is half full.” The Advantage Group can take a step back and review how it does things, and the Mental Health Board can explore more due diligence in disbursing funds.

“This is not about TAG, but in general. We need to talk about how we utilize those dollars, be smart with those dollars and talk about the efficacy of those dollars,” said Yensen, who is executive director of a Kane County nonprofit.

Yensen at the meeting also questioned the amount of Owens’ compensation. She received $199,604 in the 2011 tax year, according to the most recent IRS return available. The agency reported $770,203 in revenue that year.

Owens said Friday that her salary factors in her full-time role as a therapist as well as her full-time job running the agency. She also said that Mental Health Board funding goes into services, not her salary, and added that she has not received a paycheck since July.

Mental Health Board funding accounts for about 30 percent of The Advantage Group’s total revenues, according to its website. It received $381,963 in the board’s fiscal 2011, the last full year it was funded.

But the issue with the initial audit, released more than a year ago, must first be resolved under Mental Health Board rules before funding can resume.

The audit identified a significant number of issues with Advantage Group’s records, from billing for unapproved services and noncompliance with Medicaid regulations to using Mental Health Board funds in an inconsistent manner from its funding agreement. The audit concluded that the board should ask for a $1.08 million recoupment of all billings to the Mental Health Board from 2009 through 2011.

The Advantage Group subsequently filed a federal lawsuit alleging the Mental Health Board was trying to push the agency “to the brink of extinction” in an effort to give others preferential treatment. The Mental Health Board alleged the lawsuit was nothing more than an attempt to stop the consequences of being “caught red-handed.” The case was dismissed in April.

Routzahn said the board wants to find a mediator to work with both sides and determine how much should be recouped.

Nonprofits that run afoul of the prohibition on political activities are supposed to report violations to the Internal Revenue Service and pay an excise tax. In some cases, the IRS can levy fees not only on the agency itself but on individual executives and board of directors members.

Federal disclosure laws prevent the IRS from commenting on whether it has received any complaints about TAG, or on any activities related to specific tax-exempt organizations, spokesman Jose Munoz said.

The Mental Health Board has been weathering its own crisis since 2012 with an exodus of top leadership and heavy turnover on the board as questions regarding its budget and spending practices have increased.

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