Federal agency starts investigation of Family Ties and Niesen
March 10, 2013
By KAREN VELIE, JOSH FRIEDMAN and DANIEL BLACKBURN
(Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a series about San Luis Obispo County Homeless Services and the nonprofits managing the program.)
Federal officials launched a probe of Family Ties, the nonprofit that has been at the heart of a CalCoastNews investigative series into the treatment of the homeless in San Luis Obispo County.
The investigation centers on the activities of Family Ties and its head, Lisa Niesen, since November of last year, Social Security documents show.
The Social Security Administration is referring the case to the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) to conduct the investigations, the attorney for a former client of the nonprofit said. According to its website, the OIG, based in Washington, D.C., is designed “to prevent and detect waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement” in Social Security Administration programs.
OIG officials will not confirm or deny an active investigation.
But Cliff Anderson, a former client of Family Ties, and his attorney Stew Jenkins, said an employee of SSA informed them last week that the OIG will be asked to investigate how Family Ties is managing its accounts.
An exclusive CalCoastNews investigation reveals that complaints of missing funds with Family Ties go back at least five years, complaints that at the time appear not to have prompted an investigation.
While working as the city coordinator for the Salvation Army, Hildy Gal, a social worker, spoke with a previously homeless man who said he was unable to pay his bills and eat on his meager income. While going over the man’s accounts, Gal said she discovered Family Ties was saving a portion of his income each month even though the man had already been placed in housing.
“He got $200 a month to pay his bills,” Gal said. “He didn’t have enough for food and his electric bills. He didn’t have enough money for anything.”
Gal tried to get Niesen to refund the portion that Family Ties had kept, she said.
“I asked for his money back and Lisa Niesen gave him some back, but not all of it,” Gal said.
Gal then reported those Family Ties issues to Social Security Administration officials, San Luis Obispo County and Transitions Mental Health, she said.
“I was told by a man at Transitions that Lisa Niesen was very powerful and they did not want to cross her,” Gal said.
CalCoastNews began a series on Family Ties and the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo (CAPSLO) after learning Anderson had signed over more than $40,000 in Social Security payments to the nonprofit over a four year period.
CAPSLO, the primary provider of homeless services in the county, requires its clients in case management to provide 50 to 70 percent of their income to CAPSLO or — if a person is on Social Security — to make Family Ties their representative payee.
According to Social Security documents, Family Ties manages bank accounts and makes payments on behalf of its clients. CAPSLO case managers then prepare monthly budgets and are charged with assuring clients’ needs are met. When a client wants to make a request for money or an accounting of their funds, they go to their case manager.
In 2009, Cliff Anderson agreed to make Family Ties his representative payee after becoming homeless in the aftermath of a fire at his apartment.
In late January, Anderson asked his CAPLSO case manager for money to buy a pair of shoes. When rebuffed, he asked for an accounting of his remaining funds, release from case management and for the return of his remaining monies.
Niesen, president of Family Ties and San Luis Obispo County’s chief deputy public guardian, has not returned any money to Anderson though CAPSLO officials promise that people on case management will have their money returned to them within 24 hours.
As Anderson’s payee, Niesen is required to assure funds are spent on a timely basis for a client’s ongoing needs. Federal laws require that people on SSI disability save no more than $2,000.
Because Family Ties failed to follow federal laws and retained more than $5,000 of Anderson’s money while serving as his fiduciary, his Social Security disability benefits have recently been suspended. As a result of his canceled benefits and Niesen’s failure to provide him his funds, Anderson is unable to pay for food or lodging.
Jenkins and another concerned citizen provided funds for two months rent and a handful of county residents have provided the former chef with groceries and other necessities.
Earlier this week, through her attorney Joesph Diehl, Niesen provided CalCoastNews a register of Anderson’s Social Security income and checks written. The documents provided by Niesen were only a portion of those requested by CalCoastNews.
According to Niesen’s records, she returned $4,875 of Anderson’s money to Social Security on Feb. 16, even though Social Security does not report receiving the money until Feb. 26.
The register shows $403 left in Anderson’s Family Ties account.
On Feb. 4, the same day CalCoastNews first reported that Family Ties had more than $2,000 of Anderson’s money, Niesen wrote a check out of his account for a burial plot that she later voided, according to the register.
Purchasing a burial plot requires the client’s permission, an authorization Anderson said he did not give.
“What a kick in the pants,” Anderson said. “My family knows I want to be cremated and my ashes are to be sprinkled out on the family farm.”