Questions continue to follow former Smoky Mountain Center for Mental Health director Tom McDevitt — who resigned amid scrutiny last year — in his role as director of the agency’s multi-million dollar nonprofit arm.
McDevitt apparently stepped up as the full-time director of the Evergreen Foundation on Jan. 1, according to a Smoky Mountain Center for Mental Health press release. McDevitt had also served as director of the Foundation when he was the head of the Smoky Mountain Center, but only worked eight hours per week for the Foundation.
In his role, McDevitt continues to work closely with the same agency he resigned from amid controversy.
When The Smoky Mountain News asked Foundation board members to confirm that they had approved a contract between McDevitt and the Foundation dated Dec. 12, different board members gave conflicting answers.
The two-and-a-half-year contract awards McDevitt a budget of $308,724 to operate the Evergreen Foundation, including services such as general administration, accounting, budgeting, and investment coordination, as well as overhead. McDevitt’s own salary would comprise most of the budget, but what portion is not clear.
Of seven Evergreen board members, only four were present for the alleged vote to approve the contract at the December meeting where it was discussed. Of those present, one could not immediately remember whether a contract had been approved. The other two refused to comment. Only Evergreen board chairman John Bauknight would speak about the vote.
Initially, Bauknight would not confirm or deny the existence of the contract when he was first asked about it. Then, Bauknight said the vote for the contract was unanimous, but would not say which board members voted for it. He declined to look at a copy of the meeting minutes in order to jog his memory.
“I don’t need to look at them,” Bauknight said. “I don’t have a copy of those minutes, but it passed. The contract was voted on and passed.”
But Bauknight failed to tell other board members who weren’t at the meeting of the contract’s approval for nearly two months, when the board began to get media inquiries about it.
Board member Barbara Vicknair was surprised to learn the contract had been approved. She had left early from the December meeting, and had yet to get a clear answer on the contract vote.
“I’ve heard on one hand it was approved, and on the other that it was not,” she said. “I’ve been told both ways, so I really would like to know if it did or didn’t get approved.” Vicknair said she plans on raising the issue at the Foundation’s next quarterly board meeting.
Linda Cable, another board member who did not attend the December meeting, also was unaware of the contract’s approval, and was also unaware that the board all voted in favor of it.
“I didn’t hear it was unanimous, just that it had been discussed, not approved,” Cable said.
Jimmy Johnson, another board member, did attend the meeting. However, he could not remember if a contract had been approved, and said he would have to “look back on the minutes.” Johnson failed to return subsequent phone calls.
Other board members refused to speak to The Smoky Mountain News. Board member Bob Carpenter called the paper, “extremely careless with (its) news articles,” before refusing to comment and abruptly hanging up. Board member Ron Yowell refused to comment, and referred all questions to Bauknight. Board member Donald Bunn did not return phone calls.
Bauknight placed phone calls to some Foundation board members and told them not to speak with reporters during media inquiries into the contract.
Following media inquiries into the contract, Bauknight agreed to meet in person with The Smoky Mountain News. During that meeting, he said “the contract has been fully aired and discussed.”
‘Full support of board’
Because some board members did not return phone calls or refused to comment, The Smoky Mountain News did not have an opportunity to ask how each felt about McDevitt continuing to work closely with the Smoky Mountain Center for Mental Health. The two board members who were posed that question declined to comment.
Bauknight, though, said the board is fully behind their director.
“He has the full support, trust, and confidence of the Evergreen board,” he said. “The selection of McDevitt “is absolutely appropriate — no ifs, ands, or buts.”
Scrutiny over McDevitt’s activities as Foundation director dogged him in the weeks leading up to his resignation. A Smoky Mountain News investigation found that McDevitt earned $42,000 per year for eight hours of work each week for the Foundation; used his wife as a real estate agent on sales of Foundation property; employed his daughter; and ran his Evergreen Foundation salary through the books of the Smoky Mountain Center, making his overall wage appear higher and qualifying him for additional retirement benefits.
Having McDevitt stay on as the director of the Evergreen Foundation after he retired was always the plan, said Bauknight.
“We’ve got a gentleman here who, basically, his long range goals a few years ago were when he left Smoky, he was going to stay with the Evergreen Foundation,” Bauknight said. “Why? Because of his management skills and his financial background — it’s a perfect fit.”
McDevitt has overseen the Foundation since its inception. The nonprofit works to benefit the mental health community in Western North Carolina, primarily by leasing its 23 properties in seven western counties to private mental health providers at below-market rent. The Foundation’s affordable properties helped lay the groundwork for the community of providers in the region that provide services to individuals with mental illness.
“If the Foundation hadn’t done what it had done, there wouldn’t be a provider community,” McDevitt said.
Mental health reform that took place in the early part of the decade focused on placing mental health care back in the local communities with outpatient services. This posed a problem for areas like WNC, where the necessary outpatient services were lacking.
Providers were “professionals who became entrepreneurs overnight,” said McDevitt. Evergreen helped make that transition easier by giving providers an inexpensive place to set up shop.
McDevitt attributes the Foundation’s success in large part to his leadership.
“My significant involvement in this organization ... is what made it successful,” he said. “My motivation has been to do what will best benefit the community.”
As the director of the Evergreen Foundation, McDevitt continues to work closely with the same organization he resigned from. The Smoky Mountain Center acts as a go-between for mental health care providers seeking a cheap place to rent and the Evergreen Foundation, which holds the properties.
McDevitt said his continued involvement with the Smoky Mountain Center is not an issue. He will have little contact with the Smoky Mountain Center board of directors, whose scrutiny of McDevitt’s activities ultimately led him to resign. He admits, though, that his relationship with the Smoky Mountain Center administration has changed.
“I’m continuing to work with all the people the same way I always have, though I think there is a little bit different disposition there. That’s only natural. I’m the past CEO, but I’m not their boss anymore. There’s a different relationship,” he said.