THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Shelter kitchen theft prevalent, report says

By Stephen Smith
Globe Staff / February 23, 2011

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A culture of theft and lax supervision pervaded a kitchen operated by the city of Boston that feeds 2,000 meals a day to the homeless and city workers, an internal investigation has concluded.

The review by the top lawyer at the Boston Public Health Commission found evidence that workers at the kitchen on Long Island were skimming city-purchased food — including steaks, turkeys, hot dogs, hamburgers, and cakes — for their own private weddings, tailgate and birthday parties.

The review, obtained yesterday by the Globe through a public records request, also said that one worker stole $1,600 in cash from the Serving Our Selves kitchen, widely known by its SOS acronym.

In her report, Nakisha L. Skinner, the health agency’s general counsel, concluded that “there was a grave lack of oversight of and accountability for the SOS kitchen.’’

Barbara Ferrer, the top health official in the administration of Mayor Thomas M. Menino, acknowledged yesterday that supervision of the kitchen was woefully inadequate. There was, for example, no system to monitor food coming in and out of the facility. The refrigerators were not even locked.

“As a public employee who’s in charge of the Health Commission, I’m apologizing,’’ Ferrer said. “This should never happen. You’ve got taxpayers’ resources that are going to [be used] in our programs, and we really hold ourselves to the highest standards and want to think we’ve got systems in place that really assure there can’t be gross misconduct.’’

It is unclear how much food was stolen, Ferrer said, or for how long. The investigation documented abuses persisting for at least two years at the kitchen, which has an annual budget of more than $1.3 million and sits on a campus that provides housing and job training for the homeless.

The review implicates one staff member as the ringleader, accusing him of encouraging seven other employees to take food. The main architect of the scheme was fired, and health agency officials said they reported their findings regarding that worker to the anticorruption unit of the Boston Police Department. That squad’s investigations typically are not made public until they are completed, said Officer Eddy Chrispin, a police spokesman.

The other kitchen workers faced disciplinary action ranging from suspension to written reprimands, Ferrer said. The copy of the investigation report obtained by the Globe had all the workers’ names removed.

Ferrer defended her decision not to fire all the workers implicated in corruption. “I try to explain this isn’t any work site; this is a special work site,’’ she said. “We are a program of second chances.’’

The SOS kitchen has been widely heralded for its efforts to feed the homeless and to provide culinary training to those who live on the streets; most of its workers are homeless or formerly lived on the streets.

“The fact that it serves the homeless or is dedicated to an important human service doesn’t exempt it from human nature,’’ said Joe Finn, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, an advocacy organization. “What else can you say?’’

Since the misdeeds came to light, Ferrer said, the Public Health Commission has begun instituting measures to prevent corruption, installing locks and cameras and implementing an inventory control system. The new security systems will cost about $30,000. Employees who received food have been ordered to reimburse the city.

The investigation — which began with a chagrined kitchen worker contacting a city human resources office last September — parts the curtain at an operation where theft happened regularly, workers feared retribution if they blew the whistle, and a catering operation existed as a sideline.

Skinner conducted 14 interviews in assembling her 54-page report, which was completed Feb. 11. Because names of individuals and certain events and companies are blacked out, it can be difficult to reconstruct all the webs of corruption that ensnared the kitchen.

But the interview subjects, who sometimes provided information tearfully and only after prodding, portray a department where pallets of meat were set aside for personal use and where workers saw nothing wrong with using city resources for funerals, weddings, and coming-home soirees.

One worker who was interviewed admitted receiving food for his son’s first and second birthday parties. Other workers said they offered to pay for food they received but were told not to worry about it.

The attorney’s review also exposed a catering service operated out of the kitchen that went beyond its stated mission, to provide refreshments at city functions. The investigation uncovered evidence that food was being provided at other external functions without records of how much was paid or who received the money.

“There were many staff that were aware of illegal and unethical practices in the kitchen and, in fact, many staff participated in these activities either implicitly or explicitly,’’ the city report found. “Staff condoned these practices by direct participation or by silence. Such practices were imbedded in the culture of the kitchen.’’

Stephen Smith can be reached at stsmith@globe.com.