SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A South Bend woman filed a lawsuit against the City of South Bend and several government employees for fraud involving a city grant. This comes after a REAL News Michiana investigation discovered city and county employees changed the name on her grant to give thousands of dollars to a friend of the person in charge of the grant process.
The lawsuit names Maurice Scott, Romona Bethany, Aisha Avance and the City of South Bend. Scott is the Director of Community Initiatives. Bethany is South Bend’s Group Violence Intervention Manager. Avance is a friend of Scott’s and a Democrat Deputy at the St. Joseph County Voter Registration Office. The lawsuit alleges Bethany changed the name on an approved grant, through the city’s Alive Grant initiative, at the direction of Scott and Avance. The change gave thousands of taxpayer dollars to Avance, who is a friend Scott.
“On or about December 30, 2020, via telephone, Aisha Avance told Romona Bethany the payee changes she wanted to make to Sherrie Weekly’s application. This was done without the knowledge or consent of Sherrie Weekly.” The lawsuit states. “Romona Bethany, at the direction of both Maurice Scott and Aishia Avance, modified Sherrie Weekly’s South Bend Alive application to change the payee to Aisha Avance. This was done without the knowledge or consent of Sherrie Weekly.”
The lawsuit goes even further, suggesting Avance committed actual criminal acts.
“Aisha Avance did commit identity deception, in violation of Indiana Code 35-43-5-3-3.5, when she professed to be the payee for the grant check.” The lawsuit states.
In August of 2021, REAL News Michiana obtained audio of Bethany admitting to altering the name and information on the grant application, resulting in thousands of dollars being given to Avance, who is friend of her boss, Maurice Scott. The city official also admitted to hiding information from the media.
The conversation is between Bethany and Sherrie Weekly, who is now suing for the fraud. In the recording, Bethany tells Weekly she changed the name on her grant at the direction of Scott.
RNM has also obtained documentation of the grant alterations which are shown further down in this story. Portions of audio from the above mentioned conversation are posted throughout this story for supporting documentation. RNM is in possession of nearly 40 minutes of audio from that conversation.
RNM has been investigating associated fraud within the city grant initiative for nearly a year and a half. In that time, RNM reporter Clifton French has been threatened with arrest and prevented from visiting government offices due to his diligent investigating. All evidence of the intimidation from government officials is cited in this story.
RNM’s investigation is focused on the South Bend Alive Grant initiative.
According to the city’s website, the “Alive grant program is part of the City’s ongoing efforts to reduce incidents of gun violence in the community and provide constructive initiatives for South Bend’s young people.” The city gave 50 organizations these grants totaling $350,000. The Alive program is in its first year of operation and is run through the Department of Community Initiatives and its director Maurice Scott.
RNM obtained the applications, awards and other information about each of the grant awardees through a Freedom of Information Act request.
One application and award letter involving a program called CHOICES showed some glaring discrepancies. Both the application and award letter mention a woman named Sherrie Weekly and her organization, L&C Enterprises, which was putting together the CHOICES program.
The document describing the award starts with the following paragraph.
The Office of Community Initiatives has reviewed your South Bend Alive Grant application for L&C Enterprises. We are pleased to inform you that you have been selected to receive partial funding.
“I never received anything like that.” Weekly told RNM when contacted about the paperwork. “I was told my grant request was denied.”
Later documents show a name change, with a woman named Aisha Avance being awarded $7,000. However, Avance is not listed on any of the application documents or the previously mentioned award letter. You can view all of the documents below.
Concerned about the discrepancies, Weekly reached out to the city regarding her grant and the award process. Weekly spoke with the city’s Group Violence Intervention Manager, Romona Bethany. Below is the audio and transcript of Bethany admitting to altering the name on the application and award.
Bethany: My only statement to you is that my director contacted me about the changes. So, from there I received a phone call from Aisha Avance. And from there she processed her change request by email. So, what happened, on your end that I don’t know about. You have every right to fill in those blanks however you see fit. And I’ll help you to do so. But, I’m now giving you what I have. So, um, my process for change came from director level. My phone call was from Aisha Avance. And, she provided emails supporting the change in organization information, the director and she asked that Sherrie Weekly be placed as the authorized signer. Because she knows that more than one individual would be placed on a grant application for signer purposes. To be able to sign, when entering in for trainings and all things that would transpire afterwards. So, she submitted a new application that had these changes on them. So, I…
Weekly: But the application she submitted is the same, the budget and everything else is the same. The wording may be…
Bethany: My understanding is she changed nothing except for the first page.
Bethany: Which was the, she supported it with email too. So, I’m looking at it right now. That’s what I printed out before I called you. Um. This was December 30th, Wednesday December 30th, at 3:26pm. CHOICES corrections. “Good Afternoon Mrs. Bethany, the following information needs to be corrected.” Program information; she kept the CHOICES, um, acronym. Organization information; CHOICES for Life South Bend. And she says “Thank you.” I said “The updated information for your organization, a South Bend Alive application has been received and integrated into an updated South Bend Application on your behalf. Please see the updated application reply with your approval or suggestions for any corrections. We will retain these updates for our records. You are welcome to contact me directly with any questions or concerns.”
Weekly: So, what she did and what he did, that’s not right. That’s illegal. That’s illegal. They illegally took, like just, like I said, robbed me of my grant. And, you only doing what your director said, so, of course you’re following. You’re thinking everything is on the up and up just like I thought everything was on the up and up.
Bethany made the changes despite the fact that Avance is not listed or authorized to make any changes on any documents.
Weekly tells RNM she never received notification from the city about her grant, but instead received a call from Avance and a man by the name Vernado Malone, who claimed Weekly’s grant application was denied. Weekly says Avance, who is friends with the Community Initiatives Director, Moe Scott, explained she would create a new program and she was confident the new application would be approved, because of her relationship with Scott.
Weekly says Avance, who was a friend of hers as well, planned to keep Weekly on board with the CHOICES program. And, asked that Weekly go to a signing event and training with her when the awardees were announced.
“I just wanted to help the community. However we could get that money to help the community, I was fine with it.” Weekly said. “But she lied. And the city just made the changes on my grant without even asking me. That means anyone can call over and get the grants changed. It’s illegal.”
In the recorded conversation with Bethany, the city official also tells Weekly that the city is actively hiding information from the media. Bethany also urges Weekly not to speak with the media regarding her Alive grant experiences. The transcription and audio is provided below.
Bethany: You know what, Sherrie? I really wish that you didn’t engage with him. I’m not sure if you know who he is and if you’ve ever had any interactions with him but Clifton French is notorious for just reporting negative news about largely the black community but his agenda is Right. He’s very Republican and very hell-bent on agendas and his form of reporting I have no respect for. My office has no respect for and we don’t entertain him or engage him at all and I really wish that you knew that beforehand. Anything that has to do with Alive is under me and I think in the future if anybody brings to you anything about Alive, especially reporters, you can direct them to me. And I wish that he, he, that’s, I don’t know. Like, I feel that most people who are activists or are community workers, they are very well aware of who he is and what he brings with him. With him comes mess, all the time. His track record precedes him and I guess my assumption is that you didn’t know that.
Weekly: Huh uh.
Bethany: You have a right to know who he is.
Weekly: You know I’m not from here. I don’t know nobody, but he was, when I talked to him, he was very respectful. He was just asking me, he said I got this paperwork; I’m checking on the grantees, you know, and I came across yours and you know, I’m like, no, I don’t have, I didn’t receive a grant and he was like, ma’am, yes you did, it’s here and I have the paperwork in front of me and I was like no, I didn’t ever receive it, I was, you know, denied and he’s like, no ma’am and that’s when he sent me the papers and I was like, what the hell?
Bethany: Yeah. That is, he’s messy, Sherrie. He’s very messy so I would caution you with any further interactions with him.
RNM has been stonewalled by Bethany and the city regarding our investigation into alleged crimes involving the Alive grant. Clifton French approached Bethany at her office on August 10th to get information about the grants. Bethany said she would schedule a sit-down interview via email, however she has never responded. That entire interaction was also recorded and can be listened to below
RNM has also sent multiple emails to Mayor James Mueller, his communications staff and Alive grant workers with no responses.
One of the main subjects of RNM’s investigation is Aisha Avance, who is a Democrat Deputy of the St. Joseph County Voter Registration Office. In an attempt to prevent RNM from digging into her involvement in alleged crimes, Avance has attempted to get journalist Clifton French arrested and has filed an erroneous protective order that was eventually thrown out by a magistrate for violating the first amendment.
In the entire 8 months of this investigation, RNM contacted Avance 3 times. Once by calling her work phone at the County-City building in March. Several days later, RNM left a voicemail on her cell phone. And, on August 10th, 2021, RNM’s Clifton French attempted to speak with her while she was working in the taxpayer funded Voter Registration Office. RNM recorded that entire interaction. It can be viewed below.
Avance lied about those interactions in order to obtain a protective order against RNM’s journalist by claiming he refused to leave the Voter Registration Office after being asked to leave. As you can tell in the video provided, RNM left the office as soon it was requested. You can view the protective order below.
Several days later, Avance attempted to have a warrant issued for Clifton French’s arrest by filing a report, claiming he violated the protective order by continuing to report on our investigation. You can see those court filings below as well.
Weekly also believes she experienced intimidation. The same day Clifton French was served with the erroneous protective order, her car was destroyed in a brazen act of vandalism in front of her house.
In the pictures below, you can see all of the ties were slashed, the leather interior was sliced up and all of the controls were ripped from her steering column. Her vehicle was deemed a total loss.
It’s unclear who committed the acts of vandalism, however it was only days after RNM contacted her about our investigation into the Alive Grant. It was also only days after RNM published a story regarding potential EBT fraud of another Alive Grant awardee. That story can be read here.
Weekly sent an email about concerns regarding her safety to Mayor James Mueller, Mueller’s Communications Staff and the general Alive Grant email address. Even after requesting not to be contacted by folks directly involved with the Alive Grant, she received numerous phone calls from a grant administrator and awardees. Weekly tells RNM, nobody else from Mueller’s administration has reached out. You can read that email below.
My name is Sherrie Weekly. I was recently contacted by a journalist who had Alive Grant paperwork with my name and information on it. I was under the impression that my grant had been denied and it was instead given to Aisha Avance.
The reporter just contacted me again, letting me know he had reached out to these three email addresses.
I want to make it clear that I am in fear of retaliation from Ms. Avance and others working with the Alive Grant. I do not want the Alive Grant employees to contact me. I do not want other Alive grant awardees to contact me. I would prefer someone in the Mayor’s office reach out to me directly.
After I was contacted by this reporter and he had published a couple of stories, my car was vandalized. All of the tires were slashed. The inside was destroyed. I fear this is intimidation from some of these people with the Alive City Grant, either employees or awardees, due to this reporter just contacting me and writing a story about what he discovered.
RNM is not sure how many city grants could have been altered like Weekly’s. And, we are continuing to investigate all of the awardees.
So far, RNM’s investigations into the Alive grant and its awardees have to lead to the discovery of several potential criminal acts.
RNM uncovered a disturbing scheme in which one awardee, Justice for Michiana, and its founder Vernado Malone, were taking and sharing nude photographs of the recently deceased at a local funeral home. Avance was listed as the president of Justice for Michiana at the time. You can read that story here. That story lead to an investigation by the Indiana Attorney General’s Office. Two families of the deceased victims have since filed lawsuits against Malone and Alford’s Mortuary.
Another awardee, Wright Chosen Ministries and its founder Lori Wright, is accused of taking food stamps from homeless families and selling them to a woman in Louisiana. Sources tell RNM, Avance is related to Wright through marriage. You can read more about that story here.
RNM discovered several convicted criminals were also awarded grants, including a convicted murderer who had been out of prison for less than a year and who bragged about shooting a father of 5 in the face. Another violent felon, who was convicted of federal crimes for a violent robbery at a jewelry story was also given thousands of taxpayer dollars.
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