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AmeriCorps programs accused of sexual misconduct and breakdowns in oversight

WASHINGTON — A CBS News Radio investigation of years of complaints about AmeriCorps programs has found multiple allegations of sexual harassment, abusive behavior and mismanagement since 2013. The allegations are detailed in complaints to the agency's Inspector General, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

AmeriCorps, a network of national service programs, is the largest issuer of grants for service and volunteering.

It is overseen by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), which was established as a federal agency in 1993 – and has been dogged for years by claims that it is poorly managed.

Conservative critics say AmeriCorps is a waste of money and promotes liberal causes. The Government Accountability Office found last year that CNCS has fallen short in monitoring whether the organizations it grants money to meet federal standards and requirements.

In one recent case, CNCS was slow to respond to allegations of sexual harassment against the founder of one its programs, Impact America. In May 2018, CNCS was alerted to the case by a call to the telephone hotline of its Office of the Inspector General. The complaint reported "sexually explicit text messages and emails" were being sent to an AmeriCorps member from a supervisor. It also alleged timesheet fraud.

Days before, in a resignation letter obtained by CBS News, the young woman who received the inappropriate messages alleged Impact America president Stephen Black tried to pursue a romantic relationship with her and "that this kind of attention from him had isolated me from my co-workers and put an enormous strain on me as I tried to distance myself from him emotionally while still carrying out my responsibilities to him as my boss."

Black, who founded Impact America 14 years ago, is a prominent Alabama attorney and the grandson of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black.

The woman said in the letter Black ignored her attempts to turn down his advances. Two other former Impact America AmeriCorps members corroborated her account.

"This was affecting her mental health and her physical health," said a former co-worker. "She wasn't really eating, she was crying a lot ... she felt really guilty," because she felt obligated to stay at the non-profit.

Black admitted to CBS News to exchanging inappropriate messages with the woman, and called it the "worst professional mistake I've ever made." But Black denied the messages were sexual harassment.

Black has since stepped down. However, he continues to provide consulting services to Impact America, according to its board of directors in a statement to CBS News. And he is also still prominently featured on the Impact America website as "Our Founder."

Black teaches at the University of Alabama, where he is director of the Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility. After this story was published Monday, a spokesperson for the school said Black had been placed on leave "pending further evaluation of the situation arising from his prior role at Impact America."

The victim's attorney, Allen Schreiber, says his client is satisfied with the changes the Impact America board has made to the organization. The changes included the hiring of a human resources director. Schreiber would not confirm whether any settlement was reached with Black or Impact America.

But one of the former Impact America AmeriCorps members who spoke to CBS News said AmeriCorps was slow to respond to the complaint and launch an investigation.

It took two months for Inspector General investigators to visit Impact America. Even then, they probed the separate allegation of timesheet fraud – not sexual harassment.

And now five months later, the Impact America board says a formal report from AmeriCorps on its investigation is still pending.

"It was obvious our word didn't count as much," one of the victim's co-workers told CBS News.

The Impact America board says it conducted its own investigation and made several changes, including hiring a human resources director and installing new leadership of the non-profit.

"It was a challenging time for Impact but the important work continues without distraction, thanks to the competent new President, as well as the supportive staff in multiples states, and a deeply engaged Board," public relations consultant Jane Evans-Ryan told CBS News on behalf of the Impact America board.

AmeriCorps grantees have been plagued with other issues.

At a site in Kentucky, a CNCS Office of the Inspector General official told CBS News "AmeriCorps has found widespread criminal history check issues in the files" of members.

The finding came in response to a July 2018 complaint to the Inspector General about a member who had been "arrested for the rape of a minor."

An Office of the Inspector General official said the search of the National Sex Offender Public Website conducted for this member was both late and incomplete. However, a search of the database found no disqualifying criminal history for the member, according to the official. The database only reports convictions – not arrests.

One former AmeriCorps member serving at a site in North Texas said he was retaliated against for seeking grief counseling after two friends died. He said he reported the issue to an AmeriCorps team leader but that she dismissed his concerns. He complained to CBS News that he felt he had few avenues with AmeriCorps to report and resolve his concerns.

"I feel that my case must have slipped through the cracks and that everybody that knew about the situation wasn't willing to address it properly with me," he said. They weren't "willing to take steps to make sure that this does not happen again for future service members."

He said AmeriCorps must do more to support its members.

"There are some host sites that sign up for AmeriCorps members without realizing that this is a federal program at the federal level, which is federally funded and with that come certain regulations and expectations: The right to non-retaliation, the right to being able to work in an environment where you're not harassed," he said.

AmeriCorps does directly oversee and manage NCCC, often in partnership with FEMA, where young adults travel together to work on projects like rebuilding areas affected by disasters.

Sexual misconduct has affected that program as well.

In 2011, a joint investigation between the CNCS and Department of Veterans Administration OIGs disclosed that a Maryland AmeriCorps NCCC member sexually assaulted another member.

A complaint in January 2013 about an NCCC site in Iowa reported "constant bullying and harassment" by a team leader, causing an "emotional breakdown."

A September 2013 complaint from a father reported his daughter assigned to a NCCC team in California "was under stress and metal (sic) abuse" by the team and unit leader.

CNCS declined repeated CBS News requests to interview Barbara Stewart, the head of the agency. However, in a statement to CBS News, Stewart said misconduct at AmeriCorps is not tolerated.

"Our policy is clear: There is no room for any conduct or behavior that is hostile, offensive, abusive, intimidating, or endangers the safety and security of any employee, member, volunteer, or client involved with national service," Stewart said. "In the isolated instances where organizations violate public trust or put AmeriCorps members in harm's way, CNCS acts aggressively to implement corrective actions and, as appropriate, refers to the Office of the Inspector General for investigation."

Fiscal watchdogs say AmeriCorps costs too much.

"We simply cannot afford to keep ineffective programs like AmeriCorps on the books any longer," said Romina Boccio, director of the Grover M. Hermann Center for the federal budget at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "This is a very large vast program that is managed by a federal bureaucracy that simply cannot keep effective oversight over what are ultimately managed in part by the private sector and state agencies all across this country."

In its 2019 fiscal budget request, the Trump administration proposed eliminating funding for CNCS, along with many other federal agencies. But Congress secured $1.06 billion.

CNCS became a target for conservatives in 2016, after its Inspector General found some AmeriCorps members at health clinics were acting as doulas to women undergoing abortions. The program – called the Community HealthCorps – was eventually shut down.

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce, chaired by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), also points to cases at AmeriCorps dating back to the mid-1990s of sexual assault and harassment and failures to conduct required criminal history checks.

Foxx has been scrutinizing CNCS and its oversight of AmeriCorps.

"We have great concerns about how the Corporation has been operating in the past few years," Foxx told CBS News. "We are going to hold the agency accountable, and we're going to continue to push the Corporation and CEO Barbara Stewart to do what needs to be done if the programs are going to continue."

But defenders of AmeriCorps say the program is essential to providing volunteer opportunities to young adults across the U.S.

"It's very effective," said Shirley Sagawa, CEO of Service Year Alliance which supports service-based organizations like AmeriCorps.

Sagawa says AmeriCorps members serving in programs like those in schools help children improve their performance and attendance.

"And it prepares leaders, makes people more civically engaged as adults," Sagawa said.

But AmeriCorps whistleblowers, its critics and republicans in Congress say AmeriCorps needs desperate reforms to support and protect members, while serving communities.

Jeanine Santucci contributed to this report from Washington.

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