Child welfare contractor spent $80,000 on Cubs tickets

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CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – MARCH 26: A woman takes a walk with a child outside of Wrigley Field on what was to be opening day for Major League Baseball on March 26, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. Major League Baseball has postponed the start of its season indefinitely due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A cash-strapped Kansas foster care contractor that struggles to pay its bills and is under investigation for falsifying documents spent $80,000 on tickets to see the Chicago Cubs, owned by the family of Nebraska’s governor, as it sought new business in that state, according to a whistleblower report.

St. Francis Ministries bought the tickets in 2019, including $65,000 worth of playoff tickets that it expected to be refunded for because the Cubs didn’t make the playoffs. That same year, the agency was awarded a $197 million, five-year contract from the state of Nebraska to oversee the care of abused and neglected children in Douglas and Sarpy Counties in the Omaha area.

The whistleblower report that The Omaha World-Herald obtained through a public records request did not say that the ticket purchase directly affected St. Francis’ bid for the Nebraska contract.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts was not aware of the purchase of those tickets until it was reported in the press, said his spokesman, Taylor Gage, noting that the governor no longer sits on the Cubs’ board.

Khalilah LeGrand, a spokeswoman for Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services, said St. Francis was awarded the Omaha-area contract because it presented the best bid.

A spokeswoman for St. Francis, Morgan Rothenberger, offered no comment on the reason for the ticket purchase. The agency’s top two officials departed last month, and Kansas officials are investigating its financial stability and use of state dollars. Kansas officials announced this month that St. Francis employees also falsified documents to show visits with families that never took place.

Mike Deines, the spokesman for the Kansas Department for Children and Families, said in an email to The Associated Press on Thursday that the agency has found no evidence of children being harmed.

William Clark, the interim president and CEO of St. Francis, commended the whistleblower, saying in a statement that it took courage “to come forward and bring questionable actions to light.”

According to the report, cash shortages forced St. Francis on “multiple occasions” in 2019 to prioritize its bills, deciding which to pay and which to put off. The agency had a line of credit with a bank but did not meet all the requirements for that line of credit during the year. The report also said the agency had borrowed money from a private individual during the year to make weekly payments.

In Nebraska, quarterly state reviews show St. Francis’ overburdened case managers have struggled since the agency took on the Omaha contract. A review released Monday showed that from January through September, more than half of St. Francis workers have had caseloads above the limits set in state law. The review also found St. Francis had not conducted thorough background checks on new employees.

Meanwhile, St. Francis and Nebraska child welfare officials skipped a legislative hearing Wednesday.

Nebraska state Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha, the Health and Human Services Committee chairwoman, questioned how long the state Department of Health and Human Services will allow St. Francis to exceed state-mandated caseload sizes for its workers.

“Where is our line?” she asked.

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