Philly nonprofit is losing its founder after whistle-blowers complain

Headquarters of the Energy Coordinating Agency. CAMERON B. POLLACK / Staff Photographer

For more than three decades, Liz Robinson was one of the most prominent faces in Philadelphia’s green energy community.

She almost single-handedly built the Kensington-based Energy Coordinating Agency (ECA) into a nonprofit with dozens of employees, a $10 million budget, and a noble mission — weatherizing homes for low-income residents — that earned praise and support from the city’s political class.

So it came as a small surprise when ECA announced this month that Robinson, 67, had tendered her resignation as executive director, with the intention of stepping down in August and transitioning into a role as a consultant.

But was there more to Robinson’s resignation than met the eye?

In late January, a group of whistle-blowers, comprised of current and former ECA staffers, reached out to ECA’s board of directors with uneasy news: Tens of thousands of dollars had been stolen from the nonprofit through a series of fake invoices and unauthorized credit card purchases. The group argued in a letter to the board that Robinson had been slow to respond to the allegations and reluctant to delve too deeply into the matter, according to a copy obtained by the Inquirer and Daily News.

Part of the group’s concern stemmed from the fact that ECA is not some small, mom-and-pop nonprofit; it’s been awarded more than $37 million in federal grants and contracts since 2008, and $19 million combined with the Philadelphia

Liz Robinson, executive director of the Energy Coordinating Agency.

Housing Development Corp. and the Division of Housing and Community Development since 2009.

The city has witnessed separate scandals already this year with two nonprofits, the Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia and Community Behavioral Health, which oversees local mental-health facilities.

Earlier this year, ECA’s board asked the law firm Drinker Biddle & Reath to get to the bottom of the thefts. One of the whistle-blowers, Crystal Spraggins — ECA’s former human resources specialist — claims Drinker Biddle partner Ronald Sarachan told her and her peers during a meeting in March that the board would seek Robinson’s resignation. But board members said Robinson’s exit was unrelated and had been in the works for years.

During a brief interview this month, Robinson downplayed the thefts, which she reported to Philadelphia police in January, before the whistle-blowers went to the board.

“The amount of funding involved is really very small, and the perpetrators were fired immediately,” she said. “There are no repercussions from it, so it’s not an issue of concern.”

Robinson said the amount stolen was less than $15,000. But hardware store receipts and copies of fake invoices reviewed by the Inquirer and Daily News show the attempted embezzlement scheme added up to more than $50,000.

When pressed, Robinson told a reporter: “There really is no issue, so I don’t think there’s any point on carrying on this conversation.” The phone line went dead.

‘It’s her baby’

Robinson founded ECA in 1984 and almost immediately became a fixture in any discussions about energy in the region. She was a fierce advocate for low-income residents, pushing ECA to set up more than a dozen centers across the city that provide a range of services, from offering information about the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to negotiating with utility companies on a homeowner’s behalf and teaching basic do-it-yourself home-repair skills.

On its website, the nonprofit claims it has saved local families more than $250 million over the years, weatherizing 45,000 homes, repairing or replacing 50,000 heating systems, and preventing over 75,000 tons of carbon emissions.

Politicians were drawn to ECA’s feel-good mission, which meant plenty of attention and praise for Robinson. In 2008, then-Mayor Michael A. Nutter appointed Robinson to his Sustainability Advisory Board. A 2015 profile in Grid Magazine, a free monthly publication focused on sustainability issues, described Robinson as the city’s “grand dame of energy efficiency“; Mayor Kenney appointed her to a nonpaid position on his transition team that fall. All of which is to say that Robinson was good at what she did — and not accustomed to being challenged, according to current and former employees.

Last year, there was a succession of thefts from materials and tools belonging to ECA’s training unit, starting with a pallet of insulation, according to one former ECA employee who spoke on the condition of not being named. Robinson initially declined to alert police or ECA’s insurance company to file a claim, but the nonprofit later recovered $12,000 from its insurer over the insulation theft, said the ex-employee, who left the nonprofit for another job.

In the fall, ECA’s bookkeepers began to get suspicious about invoices for a company called Construction Education Alliance, which had been paid $18,500 between September and November, and then submitted a bill for $6,338 in December.

The invoices were allegedly submitted by an employee named David Dennis, and payments were allegedly approved by Scott Coleman, who ran ECA’s training center, according to the letter the whistle-blowers sent to the board. The company turned out to be fraudulent.

An ECA credit card was used to make more than $18,000 worth of purchases in January at a Home Depot for items that had nothing to do with ECA’s weatherization work, like tubs and countertops, some of which were shipped to a property affiliated with Dennis.

Robinson had nothing to do with the thefts, but current and former employees suggest she regarded attention to the incidents as a potential threat to ECA’s reputation. “It’s her baby,” the ex-employee said. “If you have a child that has a drug habit, you’re not going to go tell everyone about it because you’re embarrassed, and you want to say you have a happy family.”

‘There was no real fault’

Dennis and Coleman were fired in late January. Neither could be reached by phone for comment. Dennis has had a string of legal problems since then: He was arrested on drug possession charges on April 4, and theft and burglary charges on May 22.

No charges have been filed in connection with the extensive thefts from ECA. Detective Daphne Smith of East Detectives said Tuesday that the case remains open because Robinson has not provided investigators with copies of receipts and invoices that documented the thefts.

Andrew Huemmler, the president of ECA’s board, said the total amount that was stolen from the nonprofit was “a little bit over $50,000.” The money was recovered through insurance, he said, and no losses were charged to any agency that funds ECA.

“Drinker Biddle …  made some recommendations as to how internal management practices could be strengthened and improved, but that was pretty much the conclusion,” he said.

Spraggins, the former HR specialist, contends that Drinker Biddle’s Sarachan told the whistle-blowers that “they were recommending that she resign.” Sarachan declined to comment.

Both Huemmler and Robert Graff, the vice chair of ECA’s board, said the thefts and ensuing investigation had nothing to do with Robinson’s decision to move on. “There was no real fault,” Graff said.

The men praised her commitment to ECA, which included at one point lending the nonprofit what Huemmler said was a “very significant” amount when it struggled to meet payroll obligations due to funding shortfalls.

ECA is trying to pivot from one era to the next. Steve Luxton, the nonprofit’s director of conservation, has been appointed interim executive director while a search is conducted for a full-time replacement. ECA is also in the market for a chief financial officer; John Pallies, the last person to hold the position, also resigned this month. “He found another job he liked better,” Graff said.