‘This place is crazy’: Whistleblowers detail fraud, boxes of cash at Charlotte non-profit clinic

WBTV Investigates: Federal investigation continues into CW Williams Health Center
More whistleblowers are coming forward to detail allegations of fraud and financial mismanagement at CW Williams Community Health Center.
Published: Feb. 9, 2023 at 7:20 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - More whistleblowers are coming forward to detail allegations of fraud and financial mismanagement at CW Williams Community Health Center.

WBTV has been investigating the non-profit clinic that serves west Charlotte since October. At the time, federal investigators had recently opened an investigation into the clinic, multiple sources said.

Now, two more former high-ranking employees are speaking to WBTV to detail their experiences working at the clinic. A third former employee has filed a lawsuit making similar allegations.

The new allegations come as scrutiny increases on the clinic beyond federal investigators.

Members of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners have raised questions about a recent vote to award the clinic more than $2 million in federal grant money after former employees pointed to WBTV’s investigation to question the county’s decision.

Commissioner Susan Rodriguez-McDowell told The Charlotte Ledger she had “major concerns.”

Previous: Whistleblowers detail ‘red flags’ at Charlotte community health center

“My understanding is that the county manager is taking it very seriously and looking into it,” Rodriguez-McDowell told The Charlotte Ledger.

Boxes of cash, improper billing

Sherry Cribb worked at CW Williams as the chief financial officer for roughly three months in the latter part of 2021.

Her tenure was cut short, she said, after she was repeatedly asked to prepare reports with incorrect or unreliable data.

“I didn’t give a notice. I didn’t resign. I didn’t have a conversation. I said I’m getting out of here because this place is crazy,” Cribb said.

The former CFO said she knew when she took the job that she had been hired to clean up the clinic’s books. But, she said, she was not prepared for the red flags she encountered.

Cribb said one of the first red flags was the fact that grant funding and other money the clinic received wasn’t showing up on the CW Williams bank statements.

“I’m like where is the funding? What was done with the funding?” Cribb recalled. “So then I found out that there was boxes of deposits that had not been deposited into the bank.”

Cribb said she found at least $200,000 in cash and checks that had been received over a roughly six-month period stored in boxes. Among the places Cribb found boxes, she said, was in the office of the clinic’s CEO Deborah Weeks.

As a result, Cribb said, the clinic didn’t have enough money to properly fund its mission of providing care to those who otherwise can’t afford it.

That’s something Dr. Denise Finck-Rothman knows firsthand.

Finck-Rothman worked as a doctor at CW Williams for more than five years. For the majority of her time there, she started and ran a substance abuse treatment program.

“This was a group of patients that I really wanted to help and care for,” she said of her decision to start the program on the staff of CW Williams after retiring from her full-time medical practice.

But, she said, her job became difficult when the clinic let her Medicaid credentials expire. As a result, she said, she was unable to write prescriptions for her patients.

Instead, she said, she’d have to get another doctor at the clinic to write the prescriptions; sometimes even having to go to his house.

Records obtained by WBTV show the clinic was billing Medicaid under one doctor’s name and credentials instead of billing under each provider’s individual name for the patients they saw.

Federal guidelines require each provider is individually credentialed and patients are billed for the provider they see.

Records indicate Weeks, the CEO, was the sole point of contact on the Medicaid credentialing account.

Former board member, medical director files lawsuit

Cribb, the former CFO, said she sent a detailed list of concerns and irregularities to the clinic’s board but nothing happened.

Similarly, a former medical director at CW Williams - who first served on the board before joining the staff - filed a lawsuit against the clinic days after WBTV’s first investigation.

According to the lawsuit, Dr. Michele Griffith immediately noticed irregularities at the clinic as soon as she joined as medical director.

“She observed that clinical workflows were inadequate, staff onboarding and development training were inadequate, staff morale was low, staff turnover was extremely high, and patients not receiving optimized care,” her lawsuit said.

The lawsuit said Griffith also noticed the facility was in disrepair and observed several workplace safety violations.

According to the lawsuit, Griffith complained to Weeks, the CEO, and the issues were ignored.

After making multiple unsuccessful attempts to address the problems with Weeks and members of the board, the lawsuit said, a board meeting was scheduled for Griffith to present the problems she had been raising for months.

But, the lawsuit said, Griffith was fired eight minutes before the meeting started and she was not allowed to share her concerns.

The chairman of the CW Williams Board of Directors, Edward Timberlake, issued the following statement in response to an inquiry from WBTV for this story:

C.W. Williams Community Health Center (CWWCHC) provides valuable, affordable healthcare services to members of Mecklenburg County and surrounding communities who need them most.

The COVID-19 pandemic proved challenging from a hiring and retention perspective, as we experienced higher than usual employee turnover during this time. We understand that a few disgruntled former employees who only served the organization for a very short time have made allegations against us. Most claims are unfounded; however, if legitimate issues are substantiated, we will address them.

We were focused during this time-period on keeping our doors open and serving as many patients as possible during a time of high need due to the toll COVID was taking on our community. Contrary to some reports, we have not been informed by any local, state, or federal authorities of an investigation into our financial health or management. Should we be contacted, we would, of course, cooperate fully.

We made our most recent independent audit available to the Mecklenburg County Commissioners on this past Tuesday and welcome their review. It is a clean audit. The only issue identified was a period in 2021 during the height of COVID when we failed to bill for some services in a timely manner, therefore not realizing income due to the organization.

We have enhanced controls in place and brought on a new CFO in 2022 who is experienced in administering fiscal operations of other similar Federally Qualified Health Centers and who is well versed in governmental and non-profit grant budgets and accounting. In addition, we host regular site visits, including financial audits, by Governmental agencies.

Our board is acutely aware of the complexities of running a full-service FQHC. CWWCHC’s importance to the community demands that we provide excellent, efficiently delivered healthcare. It is our board’s intention to assure that we do just that.

‘Full of greed’

Finck-Rothman said the problems she encountered at CW Williams had a direct impact on her ability to care for patients.

“I wasn’t getting the help that I needed from them,” Finck-Rothman said of the clinic’s management.

Cribb agreed that patients were suffering as a result of the sloppy financial practices and other issues she experienced during her time at the clinic.

A physical reminder of the consequences stands along Wilkinson Boulevard, where the clinic’s old headquarters sits abandoned. CW Williams leaders had previously touted a plan to tear the building down and build a new facility but those plans have, so far, not advanced.

“They started because they wanted to be a pillar in the community and they wanted to give back and they wanted to serve the people that was less fortunate, that doesn’t have the jobs, that doesn’t have the income to be able to help them,” Cribb said.

“So I believe that’s how it began. But along the way, it has come to the place of corruption and greed. And they should be closed down.”