NC Rural Center says it plans ‘aggressive’ review

acurliss@newsobserver.comJune 19, 2013 

The N.C. Rural Economic Development Center said Wednesday it will conduct a “timely, aggressive, and responsive” review of its grants after reporting in The News & Observer raised questions about how taxpayer money has been handled by the nonprofit organization.

The Rural Center’s board chairwoman, Valeria Lee, wrote in a letter to board members Wednesday that she would appoint an eight-person committee to address “the concerns of board members and the public” by July 31 about how the center awards, monitors and reports on its grants.

The committee will be headed by former state Rep. Carolyn Justice, a Pender County Republican who did not seek re-election last year.

The rest of the committee will be composed of members of the Rural Center board.

Attempts to reach officials at the center were unsuccessful after the announcement, which was made at the close of business Wednesday.

Lee wrote that the special panel will hire accountants to “determine compliance of grants” and will produce a report to document findings and recommendations. The full 50-person Rural Center board will meet in late July to “determine next steps and changes that might be considered as we move forward.”

Lee said the center is treating concerns seriously and wants to preserve the center’s integrity.

An N&O series, published Saturday and Sunday, found that the center broke its own rules on multiple occasions in awarding grants. The reports also detailed inconsistencies in claims of job creation by the center’s leaders as well as political influence surrounding some grants.

Some center leaders, including longtime president Billy Ray Hall, have described the N&O reports as inaccurate, expressing concern that they unfairly painted the organization’s overall work based on a small sample of grants.

The Rural Center says it has awarded more than $375 million in grants tied to job creation since 2004. It claims the creation of as many as 32,000 jobs from 2004 to 2012.

Curliss: 919-829-4840

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