Investigation exposes problems with how Anchorage monitors millions in federal grants

Revive Alaska under federal investigation now selling church, report shows 65% of ARPA fund recipients can’t demonstrate they met funding goals
Investigation exposes problems with how Anchorage monitors millions in federal grants
Published: Feb. 2, 2023 at 4:03 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Last month, an Alaska’s News Source investigation uncovered how the Anchorage Assembly awarded $750,000 to a nonprofit group called Revive Alaska Community Services (RACS) to build a food pantry in South Anchorage, but that group used the money to purchase a church in Midtown instead.

Now, the nonprofit group is selling that church.

RACS is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, which means it is obligated by federal law to release certain financial records. Since the organization also received federal pandemic relief funds under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), those documents are subject to additional scrutiny.

But so far, RACS and the Municipality of Anchorage have been withholding some of them from the media and public as well. Revive Alaska advertises that its food pantry in Midtown is open to the public every Wednesday between 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Alaska’s News Source stopped by on multiple occasions during that time to see how many people had shown up. On two random occasions last November, reporters saw no one coming in or out, but on the third visit, reporters did see one person leaving the church.

“The amount of people that they’re feeding there, it would be great to get that information from the city, if they’re supposed to keep track,” said concerned resident Stephen Manwiller. “But it doesn’t appear as though it is very many.”

Manwiller has also been keeping track of Revive Alaska. He lives in Independence Park, the area RACS was proposing to place up to 10 repurposed Army barracks to house homeless seniors and veterans. Revive Alaska purchased the barracks from the federal government, which is holding them at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson until this spring.

Last May, Revive applied for a rescue funds grant to help with that project, claiming those 10 units could house up to 480 people, according to Manwiller.

“We asked about the 480 number, and they said that that was only used in order to solicit money,” Manwiller said. “Once they said that, most of us realized that there’s something (that) wasn’t right about this.”

Public pressure eventually forced Revive Alaska to kill that project. Now the empty lot is back on the market.

The next month, RACS purchased a 16,000-square-foot church in Midtown at 4317 MacInnes Street, which sits on more than an acre of land. Revive did this after the Anchorage Assembly appropriated $750,000 to help the nonprofit rebuild its food pantry in South Anchorage.

When Alaska’s News Source reporters were given a tour of the building, only a couple of rooms appeared to be used for the food pantry. Reporters also found, without the Assembly’s knowledge or approval, that the municipal administration had changed the language in the grant to allow Revive Alaska the option to relocate the food pantry.

Therefore, at least some of that money went toward the church in Midtown, which now serves as a temporary food pantry.

“Does it really cost $750,000 for the small room that they have at the church?” Manwiller asked rhetorically.

In fact, Manwiller became so concerned that he contacted federal officials.

“The Department of Treasury told me they were starting an investigation,” Manwiller said.

Last November, Alaska’s News Source also questioned Revive Alaska’s president, Prince Nwankudu, who promised to be transparent.

“For me, as I’m standing here, I don’t take salary, the books are open,” Nwankudu said. “I don’t, you know, take any money from the nonprofit.”

However, Alaska’s News Source cannot confirm that because Nwankudu never allowed reporters to review his financial records, despite multiple requests. According to the Internal Revenue Service, a nonprofit “organization must report on its Form 990 all of the revenues, expenses, assets, liabilities, and net assets or funds.” They’re also required to provide copies of their annual returns for the past three years.

Last November, Alaska’s News Source began making requests for Revive’s financial records from both the nonprofit and the city of Anchorage. Reporters also wanted to review a list of how many people Revive had served at the food pantry, along with supplies and resources they’ve acquired with that $750,000 pandemic grant, a grant that also required the nonprofit to raise an additional $750,000 in matching funds.

While waiting for answers, Alaska’s News Source managed to obtain internal emails from city administrators indicating they’ve had that information for nearly six months. On Aug. 15, 2022, in response to questions from Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance, the city’s director of community engagement, Portia Erickson, wrote that Revive Alaska has been compliant with all its reporting since receiving ARPA funds.

“Revive have submitted all their quarterly reports and notified our contractor with documentation when funds were matched,” Erickson wrote in the email. “Revive has provided their food pantry resources i.e. details of who is being served, times the pantry is open, what items are available and how often they purchase goods for their pantry.”

In November, Nwankudu confirmed that information.

“The reports we give to the city, we give that like every three months,” Nwankudu said. ”We submit the reports, which are transmitted down to the federal government.”

But those reports are also public record, so this month, Alaska’s News Source went back to Revive’s food pantry several times to see if the nonprofit would provide them, but each time, reporters had no luck. Alaska’s News Source tried contacting RACS during normal business hours by calling the number posted on the front entry of its pantry. No one ever picked up or returned calls.

After Alaska’s News Source first reported on the controversy surrounding Revive, reporters returned to the church at the corner of MacInnes Street and Tudor Road to try to speak with someone during hours the pantry was open to the public. This time, reporters found a number of people coming in and out with food, but after attempts to walk into the building, the staff refused to unlock the door.

Meanwhile, members of the public were also denied entry. When reporters stepped aside, somebody inside finally opened the door and that’s when reporters tried to get some answers.

“Can you please leave, though?” asked one RACS worker.

When asked why Alaska’s News Source should leave a publicly funded facility, the worker appeared agitated.

“We’re not talking to — we’re not talking to the press,” she said.

After insisting on reviewing Revive’s Form 990 documents that are required to be presented for public inspection, Alaska’s News Source was told to leave. IRS regulations state, “copies usually must be provided immediately in the case of in-person requests, and within 30 days in the case of written requests.”

Alaska’s News Source located forms online that RACS had filed with the Alaska Department of Law, showing their activities for the past three years. For each one, Revive reported the same number of food pantry distributions, “approximately 50 families per month.”

Alaska’s News Source’s investigation also revealed a broader issue concerning how pandemic money has been monitored throughout the city of Anchorage, obtaining the municipality’s audit of the first round of ARPA funds. Those grants were allocated to 63 organizations and nonprofits in 2021, which also includes some city agencies.

In the first round, the federal government awarded Anchorage a total of $51,658,683. The report assessed how the money was used through the first six months of 2022. The city tried to track how each organization utilized the funds, using key performance indicators, or KPIs.

Out of the 63 recipients, only 22 of them submitted reports that clearly measured whether the money achieved its intended purpose. That means 41 recipients — or 65% of the overall total — had insufficient data to prove the grants achieved their pandemic-related goals.

Revive Alaska was one of them.

For each of those 41 recipients, the report explains, “the sub-recipient did not have a Key Performance Indicator (KPI) for this grant. As a proscriptive remedy the municipal(ity) will work with grantees to identify, track and report back select KPI’s for each grant for future annual performance reports.”

That doesn’t mean the money was misspent, but it does show there is a lack of data and accountability on the part of the city.

As for Revive Alaska, a federal investigation may have better luck getting answers.

“It sounds as though that’s been going on for several months now,” Manwiller said. “Because I’ve reached out to him since and he says it’s still ongoing.”

On Monday, Revive sent an email asking Alaska’s News Source to stay off their property. As for its financial documents, Revive told Alaska’s News Source that its federal “990 forms are public record that we may access on our own,” but reporters have not been able to find them, and the nonprofit refused to cooperate any further with the investigation.

The city also sent Alaska’s News Source copies of five of Revive’s quarterly reports. For the most part, they were blank, except for one that reported they serve 45 households per week.

Assembly Vice Chair Christopher Constant has called for an internal audit into all city grants. As previously noted, documents show that someone within city administration changed the language of Revive’s grant, allowing them to relocate. The mayor’s office said he doesn’t get involved with grants and the former municipal manager, Amy Demboski, was the last one to sign off on it. Demboski says she wasn’t aware of any changes that were made and only approved the grant after the city’s legal department reviewed it for any discrepancies.