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Audit questions Md. opioid agency’s $750K grant to buy former golf course

Steve Schuh, executive director of the Maryland Opioid Operational Command Center. (The Daily Record / Tim Curtis)

Steve Schuh, executive director of the Maryland Opioid Operational Command Center, said several of the critical audit findings were off-base and that others had been corrected. (The Daily Record / Tim Curtis)

A legislative audit questioned how Maryland’s Opioid Operational Command Center disbursed more than $1 million in grants for programs addressing the state’s opioid epidemic, including the potential purchase of a property formerly used as a golf course.

The audit stemmed from questions about $750,000 earmarked for the purchase of the former golf course that ultimately did not go through. That complaint, made through the Office of Legislative Audit’s fraud, waste and abuse hotline, led to further findings that the command center lacked proper policies to oversee its grants.

“Our review disclosed that OOCC did not have written policies and procedures for the selection of grantees, amounts awarded, and the monitoring of grantees,” the auditors’ report said. “As a result, we identified numerous deficiencies with OOCC’s grant process, which raised questions about the integrity of the awards and related payments.”

During the time the auditors conducted their review, the agency was transferred from the Department of Health to the Department of Military as part of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency. The Opioid Operational Command Center was originally created in 2015 by an executive order from Gov. Larry Hogan in response to the opioid epidemic.

The command center issued about $10 million of grants a year during the last two fiscal years. The grants go to local governments and nonprofits to help develop responses to the epidemic. 

The audit’s main finding stems from a $750,000 grant — during a year where no other grant was more than $100,000, the auditors said — that would have helped fund the purchase of a former golf course and country club in Caroline County.

The land would be used to create a program that would use agriculture and food to provide “rehabilitation and healing” to inmates on work release and other community members as part of the fight against opioids and addiction. The program would have included food processing, a farm-to-table restaurant, an event venue, and potentially a nine-hole golf course, the auditors said.

The grant award has not been funded, but complaints about the project were made through the auditors’ hotline and the inspector general for the Maryland Department of Health.

Auditors said they were concerned that it appeared as though the command center accepted assertions about the benefit of the potential program without performing due diligence, allegations the command center disputed.

“The OOCC did not accept such claims without question,” the agency said in its response, included in the audit. “In fact, OOCC staff visited the site of the proposed agricultural-based treatment program on multiple occasions, visited the sites of existing agricultural-based treatment programs (including one affiliated with the proposed program), listened to testimony from former clients, and conducted several telephone conferences with officials of both the existing and proposed agricultural-based treatment programs, all with the purpose of verifying details of the program and related claims.”

The auditors said they never heard about this work from the agency while they were auditing it, including when the auditors met with the agency after their review.

The audit also took issue with a $100,000 grant to an out-of-state nonprofit for drug education in Maryland schools where the money was later transferred to a for-profit business owned by senior management of the nonprofit. Auditors also questioned spending related to a $40,000 grant used to buy a truck, lawn mower, propane and a gas grill for a startup sober living residence.

The Opioid Operational Command Center said it has updated its policies governing grants since Steven R. Schuh took over as its executive director last year.

“In February 2019, the OOCC began taking measures to address concerns related to earlier OOCC appropriations policies and procedures,” the agency said in its response. “Such issues had already been identified by the OOCC’s leadership and senior administration staff and were being rectified prior to the initiation of this audit. The OOCC began public solicitation for competitive grants beginning in summer of 2019 for the FY 2020 award cycle.”

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