Ithaka Land, under fire for selling its properties that served the poor to an exclusive buyer at below market values, has hired a management consultant in the wake of its CEO's resignation.
The consultant, Scott Smith, owner of Stonehill Consulting Group LLC of Golden, tells the Indy he's recommended to the board that any additional sales of properties and development of a new family housing campus be put on hold for now.
"My recommendation to them is we don't sell anything until we understand better what this deal is supposed to be all about," he says in an interview. Questions he hopes to help the board find answers to include: Why were the properties sold, were they sold appropriately and did the board have authority to sell them.
"It doesn't feel right to me," Smith says.
The deals were orchestrated by former CEO Anjuli Kapoor, who resigned in June citing "personal attacks directed at her in the media, in her personal email and by phone by opponents of Ithaka's strategic direction."
But her LinkedIn page shows she already had set up a side business in April as a "creative strategist" prior to her resignation. She resigned from the Ithaka job in June after serving three and a half years, as criticism grew of her leading a plan to shift from housing the poor of all ages in the Ithaka community to transitional housing for families. During this time, Ithaka also changed its name, dropping the word "Trust" from its title. The articles of incorporation have not been altered to reflect those changes, though the board did approve a new mission statement, Smith says,
Kapoor's plan involved liquidating about half of Ithaka's two dozen properties, many at below market value and without appraisals or bids, to a single developer, West Metro Fire Protection District Captain Drew Gaiser, and then financing some of those deals for that developer.
The Indy reported on all that in January, along with information about the developer, and followed that with a report on where Ithaka stands with loans it had received from the city to acquire some of its homes.
All those facts led supporters of the former Ithaka Land Trust, the organization's original name started in the 1980s by the late Steve Handen, to seek an investigation by the Colorado Attorney General's Office.
Smith, too, is interested to know what the AG will find and plans a meeting with the AG's staff in coming weeks, he says.
"I consider it my responsibility to get to the bottom of this," he says. "Ithaka is my client. My responsibility is to get things ready so they know how to proceed."
Smith's firm has a long list of clients for which he's provided transition management and interim executive director services — the services he will perform for Ithaka. His former clients include nonprofit service agencies in Adams and Douglas counties, and the Denver area, such as Colorado I Have a Dream Foundation, Denver Children's Advocacy Center, Firefly Autism Center, Montessori Academy of Colorado and Freedom Service Dogs Inc. to name a few.
Stonehill will be paid $38,500 for five months work that started in early August under the agreement that Smith readily provided to the Indy. The contract can be extended by mutual agreement.
The contract calls for Smith's firm to oversee delivery of Ithaka's services to its clients, and also provide research and counsel for "any partnership, shared services or merger discussions with any other nonprofit agency...."
Those merger talks involve Family Promise of Colorado Springs, who's CEO Kat Lilley-Blair, recently separated from the nonprofit that provides housing to families. Crystal Karr, interim executive director, advised staff and volunteers of Lilley-Blair's departure in a Sept. 3 letter obtained by the Indy.
We asked Karr about the merger and resignation. She tells us via email, "It is mere coincidence that the two executives are no longer with their respective agencies. At this time, Family Promise is completely focused on fulfilling our mission of mobilizing the community by advocating for and empowering families with children to achieve housing stability. We are not in any talks of mergers at this time."
Smith says he's advised the board to place any changes in programming, including sales of houses, development of a new family housing complex on South Union Boulevard or a merger on ice pending the AG's report and further investigation of Ithaka's business operations.
One request made by Handen's daughter, Emmy, who runs Mesa House, a housing nonprofit for the poor, called for the Ithaka community to recapture the house at 411 W. Bijou Street. The "Bijou House" was the first acquired by Ithaka Land Trust and has a columbarium on site that serves as the final resting place for hundreds of poor people and people who experienced homelessness.
"We're trying to understand if we can get it back," Smith says. "Can anybody buy it back?" The house is now owned by Drew Gaiser.
Referring to 10 property sales that took place in roughly a year's time, all to Gaiser, Smith says, "My understanding is she brought this to the board as a done deal. They [board] do have an appetite to find out what's the truth in all this."
Smith says nonprofits occupy a "special place" in society, considering the government allows contributions to be tax deductible. "We have a responsibility to be transparent, honest in using the money according to how the donors wanted it spent, because we are unique," he says.
In a message to Ithaka Land Trust's supporters, Emmy Handen said Gaiser wants to place discussions on hold about possibly selling Bijou House until the AG's investigation is completed.
Handen also reported that Ithaka's interim CEO, Smith, with whom she recently met, "seemed interested in moving forward in a more open way and they seemed open to community input as they define their mission and path forward."
"They also said that they want to keep the columbarium as is," she wrote. "This is tricky, as it legally belongs to [Gaiser], but we discussed being able to hold our Longest Night service on December 21 and Ithaka agreed to help work that out."