Health Gap funding is 'symptom of a much larger problem,' mayoral challenger says

CINCINNATI -- A challenger in Cincinnati's mayoral race is taking aim at incumbent Mayor John Cranley after an I-Team investigation into how a local nonprofit spends tax dollars.

Rob Richardson Jr. said he agrees with Cranley's decision to order an audit of the Center for Closing the Health Gap. But he also told WCPO he believes politics played a part in the significant public funding increases the organization has enjoyed since Cranley took office.

The Health Gap's mission is to promote healthy choices in underserved neighborhoods to improve a racial disparity in access to quality health care. The nonprofit received $200,000 from the city in 2014; by 2017, city funding had ballooned to $1 million.

The Center for Closing the Health Gap has enjoyed significant increases in city funding over the past few years.

The I-Team noticed the funding increases and discovered:

  • The group submitted invoices to the city with no clear description of work being done.
  • The group admitted it wasn't operating the minimum number of healthy corner markets required in its contract with the city.

"Look, you have to meet your obligations, particularly if it's a public institution, and we as the public fund this. You have to meet your obligation. And so, assuming all of that is true, absolutely, and that's not an efficient use of taxpayer dollars," Richardson said.

Health Gap founder and CEO Dwight Tillery was Cranley's campaign co-chair in 2013 and is a former mayor himself. Richardson told WCPO he thinks that relationship affected the group's funding from the city, even though city council is responsible for approving Cincinnati's budget.

Richardson called the Health Gap's funding "a symptom of a much larger problem."

"We're going to make sure again, no matter who we give money to, that it's going to be fiscally responsible, it's going to be accountable, and it's going to be transparent. It's not going to be based upon the political relations but what's in the best interest long-term for the city of Cincinnati and its citizens," Richardson said.

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley (WCPO file)

The I-Team contacted Councilwoman Yvette Simpson, also a mayoral candidate, but spokeswoman Andria Carter said she's not commenting yet on the investigation.

When asked if Tillery's political connections got his nonprofit more money, Cranley firmly said, "No." He told the I-Team he called for the audit into how the Health Gap spends city money after WCPO told him about the group's questionable spending.

RELATED: Mayor promises quick turnaround on audit

Months before Cranley ordered the audit, Tillery publicly said he won't support Cranley's re-election bid. Tillery has since called WCPO's investigation and the city audit an attack on the black community.

The audit also has left the Health Gap in the position of having to explain its spending practices while simultaneously asking city and county leaders for money to expand its work. The nonprofit had submitted a request for $5 million from the city -- five times more than what it currently receives -- in June.

But that ask changed this week, when chief operating officer Renee Mahaffey Harris told WCPO the nonprofit now just wants $1 million again from the city next year.

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