Arrested Development

City officials say the head of the Frogtown Action Alliance is dodging them. Two former employees say he sexually harassed them. Leaders in the struggling St. Paul neighborhood fear Shem Shakir's bad karma is contagious.

"Wherever this money is coming from, it's not good," says Jerry Blakey, the St. Paul City Council member. "What it does is, it puts the organization at a standstill--and that means the community isn't being served."

 

Webber's sexual harassment lawsuit and the failed puzzle company aren't the only problems plaguing Frogtown Action Alliance. In recent years, the nonprofit group has left lawsuits, liens, and disgruntled business partners in its wake.

The government has filed tax liens against Frogtown Action Alliance five times since 1995 for failure to pay payroll taxes. The nonprofit group claimed in its August 7 press release that all of these liens had been satisfied, but according to Ramsey County records, up until August 30, the organization still owed $26,944.27 to the Internal Revenue Service. The debt has now been cleared.

In July the Alliance settled a lawsuit brought by HIRED, a nonprofit group that specializes in job training and placement. HIRED was contracted by the Alliance in 1998 to provide employment-placement services to Frogtown residents. By June of last year, the organization had enrolled 201 Frogtown residents and placed almost half of them in unsubsidized jobs. But according to the lawsuit, the Alliance failed to pay the final three months of HIRED's contract. The two parties settled the dispute in July, with the Frogtown Action Alliance agreeing to pay $9,863.84. The job-placement service moved its operation downtown, severing its relationship with the Alliance and the Frogtown neighborhood.

Other Frogtown Action Alliance programs appear to be in peril as well. The Frogtown Large Loan Fund has been mostly dormant since early this year, according to Terri Banaszewski, vice president for small-business banking at Wells Fargo Bank Minnesota and a member of the committee that approves loans from the fund. Banaszewski says the Alliance has not submitted any client loan applications to the committee in months. "We're kind of just in a holding mode until we see a loan request presented, and we haven't seen that of late," she says. "The program is there, but we aren't putting out any dollars at the current moment."

University National Bank has begun eviction proceedings against the Alliance for failure to pay rent on offices it leases at 200 University Ave. The building is home to the Frogtown-University Business Resource Center, where local entrepreneurs can go to work on their business plans or get access to a computer.

The Frogtown Times, too, says it is owed money. Tony Schmitz, the neighborhood newspaper's editor and publisher, who has written several articles about the nonprofit's troubles, claims the organization owes $825 in unpaid advertising bills.

One person who is unlikely to feel the fiscal pinch is Shakir. According to the group's 1998 tax return, the most recent available for public perusal, he made $99,032 as head of Frogtown Action Alliance--a salary increase of 37 percent over the previous year. In addition, Shakir took home $15,121 in benefits. (By way of comparison, the executive director of the Greater Frogtown Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit group with a comparable budget, received salary and benefits totaling less than $50,000 in 1998.)

Shakir ultimately answers to the Alliance's board of directors, but determining who makes up that board is a daunting task. Lists of the group's board members that have been provided to potential benefactors or attached to the group's most recent tax returns include a dozen names, but several of those named are no longer active in the organization.

In fact, there appear to be only three active board members at present: Lucy Johnson, Mike Tierney, and Andy Williams. Johnson did not return two phone calls from City Pages seeking comment for this story. Tierney, who works for Independent Delivery Service, a Frogtown business, says some of his fellow board members have stopped showing up for meetings. "I didn't figure when there were problems that you should run," he says. "You try to deal with whatever the problems are." But Tierney declines to comment about the organization.

Although he refuses to discuss the specifics of the Alliance's financial and legal difficulties, Williams, who has worked with the group since its founding in 1992, offers unqualified support for Shakir. "I think he's doing a hell of a job," he says. "I don't think anybody could do a better job than Shem Shakir. That's why we hired him."

All of the carping about Shakir amounts to nothing more than resentment, Williams argues. "People have been looking at the salary that Mr. Shakir's been getting, but if you would look at any other CEO or executive director you would find that people get paid according to their production," he says. "People don't look at Mr. Shakir's paycheck in terms of what he's done. They look at it as a black man making a lot of money. The man dresses well, he drives nice cars, and people are jealous."

Michael Samuelson, who until May was executive director of the District Seven Planning Council, also feels that race is a factor--insofar as it is employed to defend Shakir. "Who wants to take on one of the few strong African-American leaders in St. Paul?" Samuelson asks rhetorically. "That's one of the reasons why this has been allowed to fester over the years."

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