Former CEO of foster care provider defends travel charges, Cubs tickets

By: - December 22, 2020 3:14 pm

Saint Francis Ministries in November 2020 severed ties with CEO Robert Smith, chief operating officer Tom Blythe and general counsel David Schafer following an investigation into financial mismanagement. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The former CEO of Saint Francis Ministries says he charged thousands of dollars to the organization’s credit cards because of the job’s travel and fundraising demands.

And, he said, the $65,000 purchase of Cubs tickets was just an opportunity to flip them for a profit on the secondary market.

Saint Francis Ministries hired Robert Smith, known as Father Bobby, as president and CEO in 2014. He became a canonical resident in the Diocese of Chicago in 2012. (Saint Francis Ministries)

Robert Smith, known as Father Bobby, released a statement Tuesday through a public relations firm in which he lamented the “inaccurate and uninformed reporting” that followed his departure from Saint Francis. The nonprofit foster care provider severed ties with Smith and other leadership in November following an investigation into Smith’s financial dealings.

Kansas Reflector on Sunday reported on the results of an investigation that substantiated allegations of financial misconduct by Smith. The story revealed Smith from 2018 to 2020 charged $469,000 to credit cards for expenses that included first-class upgrades on airlines, five-star restaurants and hotels, luxury men’s clothing and Apple iTunes purchases. He didn’t respond to Kansas Reflector inquires for comment.

“To transform an organization requires tireless effort and commitment,” Smith said in the statement he released Tuesday. “I accepted the demand of being on the road for days and weeks every month — travel that incurred thousands of dollars spent on airlines, hotels, meals and donor development activities.”

Smith said he purchased $65,000 worth of Chicago Cubs playoffs tickets in 2019 as part of “a unique fundraising opportunity” offered by an unnamed benefactor. If the Cubs had made the playoffs, Smith said, Saint Francis could have sold the tickets for “far more than the face value of the tickets alone.” When the Cubs failed to make the playoffs, the $65,000 was refunded to Saint Francis.

“This was strictly a revenue opportunity, formalized by a legal contract between Saint Francis and the benefactor,” Smith said.

Saint Francis hired a Kansas City, Kansas, attorney to investigate Smith after a newly hired chief financial officer brought concerns about the organization’s financial problems to the board of directors in October. The investigator concluded that Smith hid financial losses from the board, authorized $11 million in payments to a company operated by Bill Whymark for software that crashed and destroyed financial records, and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on operations in El Salvador that included the harvest of a “miracle” food and credit cards requested for the purpose of bribing local officials.

Greg Meissen, chairman of the Saint Francis board, said Smith had justified investments on the premise that the software and miracle food would eventually generate profits. Those profits never materialized, and Meissen said the board was unaware of the true costs of the endeavors.

An earlier whistleblower report, delivered to the Kansas Department for Children and Families in November 2019, objected to the dealings between Saint Francis and Whymark. The anonymous author of the report identified Whymark and Smith as business partners.

Whymark operates WMK Research and SFW Technologies, both registered to an address in Mount Kisco, New York. At one point, the website for SFW Technologies identified Smith as a senior principal and executive director of social services. The photo and biography of Smith was removed from the website after staff questioned him about the relationship.

The investigation into Smith included an interview with an accountant who wondered if the level of spending on Whymark’s company amounted to embezzlement. A review of invoices and emails showed Smith spent little time reviewing the invoices before approving them, even though they reflected an improbable amount of time billed by Whymark.

“Let me correct one of many gross errors that has been repeated in media reports,” Smith said in his statement. “While I grew to respect and admire the depth of his intellect and expertise, I was never a personal, business partner with WMK Research president Bill Whymark.”

Saint Francis hired Smith as CEO in 2014. He became a canonical resident in the Diocese of Chicago in 2012.

Smith said he was sincere in his efforts to transform Saint Francis into a nationally and internationally respected organization. The Salina-based foster care provider serves 3,100 children in Kansas and is celebrating its 75th year as a social welfare agency.

“I am proud of what our team of incredibly big-thinking and dedicated professionals accomplished in my 6.5 years at Saint Francis,” Smith said. “I regret that with my resignation, the mission we started will not be fulfilled as originally envisioned.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.