TUCSON, AZ (KOLD News 13) - A controversial agency that houses migrant children receives hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money. A former employee-turned-whistleblower told KOLD Investigator Craig Thomas that some of that money is wasted.
"I'm here to say I'm sorry. That I was a part of that. I'm here to say that change needs to happen. I'm here to say the waste needs to end." That’s what this man says, who we’ll call John. He worked in food services at SW Key. We agreed to hide his true identity because he fears retribution.
Southwest Key runs about a dozen facilities in Arizona, including one on Oracle Road in Tucson.
The non-profit organization was in the headlines last summer and fall because reporters, including our Craig Thomas, uncovered abuse and misconduct by employees at some of the facilities.
Things got so bad the Arizona State Department of Health ordered several locations in Arizona to shut down, and refused to allow any new children to come into facilities until changes were made. That cap lasted for most of this year. While there were about 300 children at the Tucson facility last year, for much of this year there were 10 or fewer. And at one point there was only 1.
John says everyone who worked there knew about the cap on children, but claims his managers continued to instruct him to order food as if the place was close to capacity.
He said “taxpayers money going into this program and agency and just being disregarded like it’s not important." He thought the facility should’ve looked at ways of giving the food away – to other agencies or homeless organizations – to try to avoid throwing it out. John also took videos inside the kitchen showing many kinds of food that were being thrown out because they were past the expiration date.
We asked him why he started to make the videos. He responded: “When I was walking through and doing my inventory and I realized that a lot of this product was going to waste and knew I was going to have to throw it in the garbage. And I knew that I could be a whistleblower here.”
It wasn’t just the excess food. John claims his bosses had a habit of unnecessary spending. In one instance before a visit from Arizona licensing workers. “We had pots and pans that were in perfect condition. We were instructed to throw away or discard those pots and pans and buy all new pots and pans to impress the people coming in,” John said.
In another instance, he says management ordered more than a half-pound of beef per person for an employee luncheon. The total bill was more than $3,000.
We showed the videos and spoke about John’s accusations to Arizona State Representative Kelli Butler. She’s a democrat who visited the Tucson facility last summer, and recently proposed a bill that would’ve set up a commission in our state to monitor southwest key. That bill did not make it out of the republican-controlled committee.
“It’s really troubling. It’s sickening. The waste," Butler said. “We as taxpayers we obviously paid for that food and those supplies and to see it thrown away - it’s ridiculous. It’s absolutely absurd.”
She said the issues with food waste are similar to the issues with abuse of children from last summer, because she feels the organization does everything it can to keep people outside from seeing what goes on inside the walls.
“It’s really frustrating that there are layers of organization here - and they are not transparent at all. We have very little information about what actually happens in those facilities," Butler told us.
Butler also said she doesn’t think Southwest Key is the only culprit. She places ultimate blame with the federal government.
“Federally they want it that way, it’s health and Human Services and the Office of Refugee and Resettlement - I don’t think they want to answer questions from the public…I think it is not transparent probably by design,” she said.
John hopes Southwest Key will become an agency that can do more good than harm - to the kids it serves and to taxpayers.
“I’m not here to close any agency or get people to lose their jobs. I’m here for somebody to step in. the U.S. government or somebody to step in and say let me look at your books.”
Southwest Key responded to John’s accusations by saying they will look into working with a food bank or other organization to avoid throwing out food.
Here is the full statement from Southwest Key:
“As our headcount was reduced over the last several months, the amount of food we ordered also decreased. Our team works to buy only what we need. We have a responsibility to be efficient and reduce food waste, but we will not serve food beyond its expiration date. We are currently reviewing options to donate unused food before its expiration date.
When we began to prepare for the admissions cap to be lifted, we examined every aspect of our operation – including the equipment and all the tools in our kitchen. Some of these items were in need of repair or replacement, so we invested where it was necessary.
We are proud of our kitchen staff that work so hard to prepare healthy and balanced meals for the youth in our care. And we often hear how thankful these children are for the food we serve.”