Federal grand jury indicts former Kansas foster care officials on fraud charges

By: - November 11, 2022 5:28 pm
Federal prosecutors moved to seize bank assets in a $10 million fraud investigation involving a former employee of Saint Francis Ministries, a Salina-based organization providing foster care and adoption services under a contract with the state of Kansas. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Former Saint Francis Ministries CEO Robert "Father Bobby" Smith and IT director William Whymark face federal charges for conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud and money laundering. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A federal grand jury has indicted the former CEO and IT director of Saint Francis Ministries for scheming to defraud the foster care provider of at least $4.7 million by using fake invoices.

The indictment follows a two-year investigation into accusations of financial mismanagement that led to the dismissal of former CEO Robert “Father Bobby” Smith.

Related coverage

Nov. 19, 2020: Foster care provider removes top leaders after investigation into mismanagement

Dec. 3, 2020: Facing financial strain, Saint Francis Ministries shuts down services for refugees

Dec. 4, 2020: Kansas agency serving 3,100 foster children accused of ‘rampant’ financial mismanagement

Dec. 15, 2020: Kansas-based foster care provider’s financial turmoil, Cubs tickets amplify concerns in Nebraska

Dec. 20, 2020: Kansas foster care leader charged $469K to credit cards, hid financial losses

Dec. 22, 2020: Former CEO of foster care provider defends travel charges, Cubs tickets

Dec. 25, 2020: After financial scandal, Kansas foster care provider holds ‘head high’ and focuses on good work

Jan. 25, 2021: Kansas foster care provider asks Nebraska for immediate funding boost to maintain services

Feb. 3, 2021: Foster care provider agrees to repay Kansas funds, turn over financial records

March 30, 2021: Kansas foster care provider to repay $9.4M in unused tax dollars

Dec. 13, 2021: Episcopal church disciplines former leader of Kansas foster care provider

Dec. 14, 2021: Kansas foster care provider agrees to leave Nebraska after months of scrutiny

Dec. 23, 2021: Audit of Kansas foster care provider scrutinizes financial controls, IT costs, CEO travel, PPP loan

Aug. 12, 2022: Kansas foster care provider sues former leaders over alleged financial misconduct

Sept. 1, 2022: Kansas foster care provider criticizes coverage while Nebraska lawmaker asks for fraud inquiry

Sept. 7, 2022: Kansas foster care provider reviewed failures in Nebraska before agreeing to end contract

Sept. 19, 2022: Independent review of Kansas foster care system points to progress and ongoing failures

Prosecutors say Smith approved invoices submitted by William Whymark that inflated the actual cost of providing IT services. Smith received a previously undisclosed $50,000 kickback disguised as an authorized invoice, the indictment said. He also used Saint Francis credit cards to pay for personal expenses, including cash withdrawals, clothing and jewelry.

Smith and Whymark were indicted on conspiracy to commit wire fraud and 10 counts of wire fraud. Smith was indicted with an additional five charges of wire fraud and a charge of money laundering. Whymark was indicted on three other charges of money laundering.

If convicted, they would face a maximum prison sentence of 20 years in federal prison, plus fines and restitution.

Kansas Reflector first reported on allegations of financial mismanagement by Smith and Whymark in the weeks after they left Saint Francis in November 2020. Whymark’s $10 million IT project, combined with Smith’s personal expenses and a severely underbid contract to provide foster care services in Nebraska, had pushed the faith-based nonprofit to the brink of insolvency. The organization managed to stay afloat by receiving a $10 million Paycheck Protection Program loan that it wasn’t eligible for and never repaid.

Saint Francis is the largest foster care contractor in Kansas, providing services for Wichita and the western two-thirds of the state. In a statement, the Salina-based organization said it was aware of the federal indictment.

“As the case moves forward, Saint Francis will continue to work transparently and collaboratively with federal authorities as part of the investigative process,” the statement said. “We appreciate the diligence exhibited in the pursuit of justice by all parties.”

In January, Saint Francis filed a civil lawsuit in Saline County District Court against Smith, Whymark, former chief counsel David Schaffer and the law firm where Schaffer worked in Chicago. The lawsuit identifies Schaffer as Smith’s friend and Whymark’s brother.

Federal authorities in February seized three of Whymark’s bank accounts, with balances totaling about $700,000.

The grand jury indictment, which was filed Nov. 9, says Smith and Whymark “conspired and engaged in a scheme to defraud Saint Francis Ministries.”

Smith hired Whymark in February 2018 to lead a project to upgrade IT services for the organization. Whymark mispresented his academic credentials, falsely claiming he held a PhD in marketing sciences from the University of Connecticut, according to the indictment. He received an annual salary of $164,000.

Whymark’s company, WMK Research, hired two India-based subcontractors to perform the actual IT services, and instructed them to conceal their work. Emails from the subcontractors show how many hours employees worked and what their wages were.

Whymark submitted invoices, approved by Smith without his board’s knowledge, for inflated amounts. The indictment said payments totaled $10,737,583, of which at least $4,774,637.50 was fraudulent.

Prosecutors said Whymark used the fraudulent payments from Saint Francis to purchase a $4 million home in Armonk, New York, plus luxury vehicles, jewelry and cash withdrawals.

On Aug. 3, 2020, Whymark submitted an invoice for reimbursement of a $50,000 check he made to Smith on July 28. The invoice purported to be for marketing services and consulting work, which wasn’t in the scope of his contract. Smith approved the invoice the same day it was submitted, “causing SFM to unknowingly fund the $50,000 payment from Whymark to Smith,” the indictment said.

The indictment said Smith and Whymark conspired along with unnamed others to commit wire fraud.

Saint Francis hired Smith, an Episcopal priest ordained in 2014 by the Diocese of Chicago, as CEO in 2014. He resigned in November 2020 after an attorney’s investigation substantiated allegations of financial misconduct that previously were outlined by two whistleblowers.

Smith denied being a business partner with Whymark, even though one of Whymark’s companies had identified Smith as a business partner on its website. Smith said he never received compensation from Whymark’s companies.

He told the church last year that he wasn’t being investigated by federal authorities.

Rt. Rev. Paula Clark, who became bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago in September, said the church takes allegations of clergy misconduct seriously and cooperates with legal authorities.

“I am deeply concerned about the allegations contained in this indictment,” Clark said. “When I learned of it yesterday, I immediately moved to suspend the Rev. Robert Smith from any and all priestly and ministerial duties and to ensure that he has no direct access to credit cards, bank accounts, or any other funds held by the church. I will meet with the Rev. Smith regularly as these legal proceedings unfold to ensure his compliance with the terms of this suspension.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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. He is a lifelong Kansan.

MORE FROM AUTHOR