Episcopal church disciplines former leader of Kansas foster care provider

By: - December 13, 2021 5:29 pm

An investigation by a Kansas City, Kansas, attorney substantiated claims of financial misconduct by Saint Francis Ministries CEO Robert Smith, leading to his departure from the organization in November 2020. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The Episcopal Diocese of Chicago disciplined the Rev. Robert Smith for his poor judgment as the CEO of the largest foster care provider in Kansas, requiring him to undergo ethics and fiduciary training.

The church in August suspended Smith from functioning as a priest after conducting an independent investigation into allegations of his financial misconduct at Saint Francis Ministries. The church lifted the suspension earlier this month after receiving assurances that no new allegations would surface and that federal authorities were not preparing to file criminal charges.

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)

Rebecca Wilson, partner at a public relations firm that handles inquiries for the Diocese of Chicago, said the church’s investigation “did not identify any wrongdoing on the Rev. Smith’s part beyond errors in judgment.”

Morgan Rothenberger, spokeswoman for Saint Francis, declined to answer questions for this story.

“Saint Francis Ministries continues to work through several issues in regard to its prior management,” Rothenberger said. “Until those issues are resolved, we do not believe it appropriate to make any comments.”

Kansas Reflector first reported on the allegations surrounding Smith’s departure from Saint Francis in a series of stories last year. An internal investigation by Saint Francis concluded that Smith charged $469,000 in personal expenses on the nonprofit’s credit cards and entered into reckless business arrangements with his board’s approval.

Smith arranged to pay $11 million to an acquaintance to develop IT software that crashed and destroyed the organization’s financial records. He authorized payments earmarked for cash bribes to officials in El Salvador, where his wife planned to harvest a “miracle” food to pay for international ministries, and spent $65,000 on Chicago Cubs tickets in the hopes of scalping them for a profit.

Smith disregarded warnings in 2019 about the cost of entering into a contract to provide foster care services in the Omaha, Nebraska, region, and hid the true cost of the contract from his board. Nebraska officials, who had to refinance the deal earlier this year, are now considering a recommendation by the state’s inspector general to sever ties with Saint Francis.

Wilson said church leaders lifted Smith’s suspension based on recent developments, including the absence of new allegations in the Nebraska inspector general’s report.

Laura Howard, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, has indicated that a forthcoming audit report on Saint Francis finances won’t reveal any new allegations against Smith. A spokesman for the agency said he expects the report to be released later this week.

The Diocese of Chicago received an affidavit from Saint Francis affirming that Smith returned the funds he spent on Cubs tickets, Wilson said.

Mark Cowell, who serves as bishop of western Kansas and is also the Hodgeman County attorney, assured leaders of the church there is no ongoing FBI investigation concerning Smith. The FBI declined to comment for this story on the possibility of an investigation, and Wilson said the church has no confirmation of Cowell’s ability to assess the situation.

As a condition of his reinstatement, Smith must take nonprofit management classes on ethics and fiduciary responsibilities at Northwestern University. He also must work with an executive coach who has experience with ordained leaders and participate in “regular spiritual direction with a seasoned priest to reflect on his vocation.”

Bishops with the church plan to meet with Smith, also known as Father Bobby, to review his progress before March 31 and again before June 30.

Saint Francis hired Smith as CEO in 2014, two years after he became a canonical resident in the Diocese of Chicago. He resigned as CEO in November 2020 after an attorney’s investigation substantiated allegations of financial misconduct that previously were outlined by two whistleblowers.

The investigation included an interview with an accountant who wondered if the level of spending on Bill Whymark’s IT enterprise amounted to embezzlement. Whymark is the step-brother of David Schafer, a Chicago-based attorney Smith hired to serve as general counsel at Saint Francis.

A review of invoices and emails from Whymark showed Smith spent little time reviewing the invoices before approving them, even though they reflected an improbable amount of time billed by Whymark.

Wilson said Whymark declined to speak with church investigators.

In written responses to questions for this story, Smith said he never was a business partner with Whymark, even though one of Whymark’s companies formerly identified Smith as a business partner on its website. Smith downplayed his attendance at Whymark’s wedding and said he never received compensation from Whymark’s companies.

“With board approval, Saint Francis made an investment with Bill Whymark’s company. I did not,” Smith said.

Smith said he has not been questioned by the FBI. He declined to say whether he reported personal expenses made with Saint Francis credit cards as taxable income.

“My personal taxes are in order and are not a matter for public discussion,” Smith said.

Smith said he is currently serving as provost at the Christ Cathedral in Salina.

Kansas Reflector obtained a copy of an email he sent to church members Monday morning alerting them to the publication of this story.

“I learned on Friday, December 10, that that Diocese of Chicago issued a statement and responded to a series of questions from a reporter with the Kansas Reflector concerning what it calls disciplinary action against me, relating to my resignation from Saint Francis Ministries more than a year ago,” Smith wrote in the email. “While this is an egregious violation of sacred trust by the Diocese of Chicago, it has happened, and I am advised that this person’s ‘story’ could post as early as this afternoon.

“I have talked with the Bishop and have informed the Vestry. The support I have received is deeply gratifying as I believe your support to be as well.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the 2021 and 2022 Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. A lifelong Kansan, he graduated from Emporia State University in 2004 as a Shepherd Scholar with a degree in English.

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