A Portland-area man has filed a whistleblower lawsuit against a nonprofit organization based in Sandy, saying it fired him after he warned agency leaders they were misusing COVID-19 relief funds.
Paul Prado was hired to work for AntFarm, a nonprofit that specializes in helping youth in need, on June 9 after he requested rent relief from the organization himself, he said. Prado started out filled with idealism by his employer’s mission and the conversations he was having with clients.
But he was let go on June 23 after reporting to superiors that he believed money was being paid to landlords and renters who submitted false claims, including one person who he determined applied for money under two different names, according to the lawsuit.
“The law protects people who blow the whistle in the workplace and then get retaliated against,” said Michael Fuller, Prado’s attorney.
AntFarm runs a café and learning garden, which employ local youth and aim to foster sustainability habits. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, AntFarm expanded its services to provide rent relief and other support with grant of nearly $10 million from Clackamas County, said Kim Wheeler, president of AntFarm’s board of directors.
Wheeler did not comment on the circumstances surrounding Prado’s departure. She said the nonprofit kept records that it will use to defend itself against his lawsuit.
“Our integrity is of the utmost importance,” she said.
Clackamas County awarded AntFarm more than $9 million to pass out to eligible county residents for rent assistance, roughly half of which the nonprofit has distributed, said Kimberly Dinwiddie, Clackamas County spokesperson. The county performs periodic reviews on all agencies it chooses to pass out pandemic aid, she said.
“In response to the report brought forward, we will take more in-depth review of how the AntFarm has expended the rent assistance grant funds,” Dinwiddie said.
AntFarm attorney Shane Swilley said Prado was fired for reasons other than the concerns he flagged about what he thought were fraudulent claims. Prado’s reports were investigated and found to be untrue, he said.
When Prado raised concerns to his supervisors, one of them, Valerie Salazar, assured him that AntFarm would never condone “outright” fraud.
“If someone is outright trying to commit fraud, absolutely we will shut it down and we have,” Salazar said during a recorded workplace discussion.
But another supervisor, Anne Stevens, cautioned that the agency should go easy on applicants, including the one Prado said applied for twice the aid allowed by using two different names.
“Even if there’s fraud happening, maybe they need it too, and so that’s why it’s not our place to try to be the law and to get into those people’s business,” Stevens said during the recorded discussion. “We just need to do what our job is with the county.”
Stevens does not recall the context in which she made that remark, and more context needs to be considered, Swilley, AntFarm’s attorney, said.
Prado’s civil lawsuit requests $38,000 – the amount he would have earned for a year’s work – in compensation for retaliation and an injunction to stop AntFarm from engaging in the practices that it says led to Prado’s termination.
Prado was interviewed by two federal agents regarding his experience with AntFarm, Fuller, his attorney, said.
Gerald E. Dezsofi, an FBI Portland spokesperson, declined to comment on what the agency is or is not investigating.
Prado said an AntFarm leader cited worries about an upcoming audit when shutting down the concerns he brought up. He said his goal with the litigation is to ensure relief funds go to the people who deserve them.
— April Rubin; firstname.lastname@example.org; @AprilMRubin