Forest Hills education provider billed state improperly: DiNapoli

By Sarina Trangle

A Forest Hills-based special education provider billed the state for $875,729 in inappropriate expenses, including lease and insurance payments for Lexus SUVs, rent and cable TV fees for the organization’s husband-wife leadership team and international recruiting, a state audit found.

State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli released an audit Monday of Bilinguals Inc., which provides special education services in several languages to children between ages 3 and 5, and highlighted a dozen instances where state money was allegedly misused during the summer 2008 to summer 2011 probe period. After the period audited, Bilinguals began doing business as Achieve Beyond.

“Bilinguals, like other special education providers audited by my office, took advantage of lax oversight to cash in,” DiNapoli said in a statement. “The state Education Department needs to recoup the money paid for these unwarranted charges and put in place more stringent standards to protect taxpayer dollars.”

DiNapoli’s office said it is not pursuing criminal charges following the audit, but is asking the state Education Department to recoup the $875,729 paid to Bilinguals and help train the agency on related state guidelines.

Like many municipalities, the city Department of Education refers families with special needs children to Bilinguals, a for-profit company headquartered out of 70-00 Austin St. in Forest Hills, and pays for the cost of therapy and other educational programs based on rates established by the state Education Department.

The state Education Department then refunds the city for 59 percent of these transactions and reimburses Bilinguals for related costs that comply with state guidelines.

DiNapoli said his staff’s review of Bilinguals’ finances over three fiscal years revealed that 6.6 percent, or $875,729, of the $13,339,403 the state Education Department paid the agency should have been disqualified for reimbursement.

Bilinguals disputed several components of the audit.

“We are disappointed with the comptroller’s assessment, much of which is inconsistent with the reimbursement requirements outlined by the state Education Department,” the company said in a statement. “Any errors committed more than three years ago were inadvertent and we have since invested heavily in our infrastructure to ensure full compliance at all times.”

The audit said the state paid $10,931 in rent for a Manhattan apartment shared by the executive director and her husband, the assistant executive director, so they would be closer to the Forest Hills office, $830 in cable TV for the unit and funeral expenses for a recent hire.

Bilinguals received $17,961 for lease, insurance and repairs on a 2010 Honda CR-V and two Lexus SUVs used by the executive director and assistant executive director as well as gas, parking and toll fees for cars driven by Bilinguals’ staff without filling out required paperwork, the audit said.

DiNapoli’s staff said the state did not have a policy on refunding international recruitment expenses, but questioned the $279,552 Bilinguals received for hiring efforts in Argentina, Peru and Colombia.

“Despite these significant charges, only eight internationally recruited bilingual teachers and therapists were actually hired during the audit period,” the report read.

Bilinguals said it turned to South America because of a shortage of qualified Spanish-speaking therapists in the United States.

Auditors noted the state paid $243,950 in salaries and fringe benefits for staff who were not assigned to work on audited projects and two employees who could not be identified.

In response, Bilinguals said auditors failed to accurately account for workers assigned to multiple Bilinguals programs.

Reach reporter Sarina Trangle at 718-260-4546 or by e-mail at strangle@cnglocal.com.

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