The Evergreen Foundation was formed by the Smoky Mountain Center for Mental Health in 1977. At that time, state mental health agencies could not own property, so non-profit property holding arms were created. The first tract of land the Foundation owned was a 715-acre parcel in Jackson County on which the offices of the Smoky Mountain Center were once located.
Most state mental health agencies have since dissolved their nonprofit arms, since the law changed and they can now own property directly. But the Smoky Mountain Center kept its nonprofit arm. Today, the Evergreen Foundation owns 23 properties scattered across the seven western counties, which it rents out to mental health providers at a low cost.
With money coming in from leases and investments, the Foundation is also able to support scholarships and training initiatives that further mental health care in Western North Carolina.
“There’s never going to be enough state, federal, and local funding to address the needs in the community,” said Tom McDevitt, director of the Evergreen Foundation. “That’s what the Foundation’s ultimate goal is — to supplement proceeds to provide services for disabilities.”
McDevitt hopes to eventually attain $100 million in assets for the Foundation. Currently, it has $20 million.
McDevitt points to tangible examples of how the Foundation has benefited the community, such as establishing the Balsam Center. Initially, the Center was set up to house a program for abused youth, but the program lost state funding less than a year after it was established.
However, much of Foundation’s funds are plowed back into its asset pool with the aim of accumulating $100 million. Board member Barbara Vicknair said she has not personally seen many grants doled out for scholarships and training during her year on the board, and questions whether the Foundation could be doing more to further mental health care in WNC.
“A lot of people fall through the cracks, and I’d like to see somebody reach out to those people,” Vicknair said.
Though the majority of nonprofit arms have been brought back under the wing of their parent mental health agencies, there’s no intention to do that with the Evergreen Foundation. The reason: keep the Foundation’s $20 million in assets secure.
If the Foundation was merged back with the Smoky Mountain Center, and the state decided to merge or dissolve the mental health agency, the assets could be lost.
“If the Foundation is a part of Smoky, and Smoky goes under, where would all those funds go?” asked John Bauknight, chair of the Evergreen Foundation board. “It’s probably going to end up in Raleigh, and they’ll disperse it through the counties.”
Evergreen has kept a low profile over the years, and as a result, is little-understood.
“These people work behind the scenes,” said McDevitt. “They’re not looking for any acknowledgement or any publicity. You’ll never find any kind of article about Evergreen, because there never would have been an article. Evergreen is a small foundation with a very specific mission.”
Questions continue to follow former Smoky Mountain Center for Mental Health director Tom McDevitt — who resigned amid scrutiny last year — in his role as director of the agency’s multi-million dollar nonprofit arm.
McDevitt apparently stepped up as the full-time director of the Evergreen Foundation on Jan. 1, according to a Smoky Mountain Center for Mental Health press release. McDevitt had also served as director of the Foundation when he was the head of the Smoky Mountain Center, but only worked eight hours per week for the Foundation.
In his role, McDevitt continues to work closely with the same agency he resigned from amid controversy.
When The Smoky Mountain News asked Foundation board members to confirm that they had approved a contract between McDevitt and the Foundation dated Dec. 12, different board members gave conflicting answers.
The two-and-a-half-year contract awards McDevitt a budget of $308,724 to operate the Evergreen Foundation, including services such as general administration, accounting, budgeting, and investment coordination, as well as overhead. McDevitt’s own salary would comprise most of the budget, but what portion is not clear.
Of seven Evergreen board members, only four were present for the alleged vote to approve the contract at the December meeting where it was discussed. Of those present, one could not immediately remember whether a contract had been approved. The other two refused to comment. Only Evergreen board chairman John Bauknight would speak about the vote.
Initially, Bauknight would not confirm or deny the existence of the contract when he was first asked about it. Then, Bauknight said the vote for the contract was unanimous, but would not say which board members voted for it. He declined to look at a copy of the meeting minutes in order to jog his memory.
“I don’t need to look at them,” Bauknight said. “I don’t have a copy of those minutes, but it passed. The contract was voted on and passed.”
But Bauknight failed to tell other board members who weren’t at the meeting of the contract’s approval for nearly two months, when the board began to get media inquiries about it.
Board member Barbara Vicknair was surprised to learn the contract had been approved. She had left early from the December meeting, and had yet to get a clear answer on the contract vote.
“I’ve heard on one hand it was approved, and on the other that it was not,” she said. “I’ve been told both ways, so I really would like to know if it did or didn’t get approved.” Vicknair said she plans on raising the issue at the Foundation’s next quarterly board meeting.
Linda Cable, another board member who did not attend the December meeting, also was unaware of the contract’s approval, and was also unaware that the board all voted in favor of it.
“I didn’t hear it was unanimous, just that it had been discussed, not approved,” Cable said.
Jimmy Johnson, another board member, did attend the meeting. However, he could not remember if a contract had been approved, and said he would have to “look back on the minutes.” Johnson failed to return subsequent phone calls.
Other board members refused to speak to The Smoky Mountain News. Board member Bob Carpenter called the paper, “extremely careless with (its) news articles,” before refusing to comment and abruptly hanging up. Board member Ron Yowell refused to comment, and referred all questions to Bauknight. Board member Donald Bunn did not return phone calls.
Bauknight placed phone calls to some Foundation board members and told them not to speak with reporters during media inquiries into the contract.
Following media inquiries into the contract, Bauknight agreed to meet in person with The Smoky Mountain News. During that meeting, he said “the contract has been fully aired and discussed.”
Because some board members did not return phone calls or refused to comment, The Smoky Mountain News did not have an opportunity to ask how each felt about McDevitt continuing to work closely with the Smoky Mountain Center for Mental Health. The two board members who were posed that question declined to comment.
Bauknight, though, said the board is fully behind their director.
“He has the full support, trust, and confidence of the Evergreen board,” he said. “The selection of McDevitt “is absolutely appropriate — no ifs, ands, or buts.”
Scrutiny over McDevitt’s activities as Foundation director dogged him in the weeks leading up to his resignation. A Smoky Mountain News investigation found that McDevitt earned $42,000 per year for eight hours of work each week for the Foundation; used his wife as a real estate agent on sales of Foundation property; employed his daughter; and ran his Evergreen Foundation salary through the books of the Smoky Mountain Center, making his overall wage appear higher and qualifying him for additional retirement benefits.
Having McDevitt stay on as the director of the Evergreen Foundation after he retired was always the plan, said Bauknight.
“We’ve got a gentleman here who, basically, his long range goals a few years ago were when he left Smoky, he was going to stay with the Evergreen Foundation,” Bauknight said. “Why? Because of his management skills and his financial background — it’s a perfect fit.”
McDevitt has overseen the Foundation since its inception. The nonprofit works to benefit the mental health community in Western North Carolina, primarily by leasing its 23 properties in seven western counties to private mental health providers at below-market rent. The Foundation’s affordable properties helped lay the groundwork for the community of providers in the region that provide services to individuals with mental illness.
“If the Foundation hadn’t done what it had done, there wouldn’t be a provider community,” McDevitt said.
Mental health reform that took place in the early part of the decade focused on placing mental health care back in the local communities with outpatient services. This posed a problem for areas like WNC, where the necessary outpatient services were lacking.
Providers were “professionals who became entrepreneurs overnight,” said McDevitt. Evergreen helped make that transition easier by giving providers an inexpensive place to set up shop.
McDevitt attributes the Foundation’s success in large part to his leadership.
“My significant involvement in this organization ... is what made it successful,” he said. “My motivation has been to do what will best benefit the community.”
As the director of the Evergreen Foundation, McDevitt continues to work closely with the same organization he resigned from. The Smoky Mountain Center acts as a go-between for mental health care providers seeking a cheap place to rent and the Evergreen Foundation, which holds the properties.
McDevitt said his continued involvement with the Smoky Mountain Center is not an issue. He will have little contact with the Smoky Mountain Center board of directors, whose scrutiny of McDevitt’s activities ultimately led him to resign. He admits, though, that his relationship with the Smoky Mountain Center administration has changed.
“I’m continuing to work with all the people the same way I always have, though I think there is a little bit different disposition there. That’s only natural. I’m the past CEO, but I’m not their boss anymore. There’s a different relationship,” he said.
Tom McDevitt, the former director of the Smoky Mountain Center for Mental Health who resigned amid scrutiny last fall, was barely out the door when he was tapped by the state to head up a mental health agency down east plagued by turmoil of its own.
The state’s move to replace one director who was fired for mismanagement with another director who resigned under suspicion of conflict of interest caused a public outcry, forcing the state to rethink its decision.
It was announced on Tuesday, Jan. 20, that Leza Wainwright, director of the state Division of Mental Health, had tapped McDevitt to head up the Albemarle Mental Health Center, based in Elizabeth City. The board of the Albemarle Center had asked the state to assume control of its agency following a period of gross mismanagement that culminated with the firing of agency director Charles Franklin.
Wainwright chose McDevitt, who resigned his position as leader of the Sylva-based Smoky Mountain Center in September following intense board scrutiny over some of his actions, including his pay, perks he provided for himself and his family, and heavy-handed leadership style. McDevitt continues to serve as the director of the Evergreen Foundation, the non-profit arm of the Smoky Mountain Center.
The Elizabeth City-based newspaper The Daily Advance wrote of McDevitt’s appointment last week, pointing out that McDevitt had resigned from his previous job after red flags were raised about his activities.
It wasn’t long before comments from readers began flooding the newspaper’s Web site. Many seemed appalled that the Albemarle agency had put its trust in the state, only to see the state replace one fired director with another who had resigned under scrutiny.
Meanwhile, officials associated with the Albemarle agency were struggling to understand the state’s decision to appoint McDevitt.
“One of the ironies is that Albemarle asked for the state to come in and give them a director because of the problems they were having with a director, and now you have this situation,” said Albemarle Mental Health Center’s board attorney John Morrison. “The state was aware we had similar issues — I wonder why they would send (McDevitt) here.”
Pasquotank County Commissioner Chairman Marshall Stevenson said he was “very concerned.”
“He’s got baggage — we don’t need somebody like that,” Stevenson said of McDevitt.
On Thursday, Jan. 22, two days after McDevitt’s appointment, McDevitt and Wainwright attended a meeting with the Albemarle agency’s board of directors. Before the meeting, Wainwright told The Daily Advance that she was aware of the controversies surrounding McDevitt when she tapped him as director, and that they were greatly exaggerated. Wainwright commended McDevitt’s handling of the Smoky Mountain Center’s finances and the changes he had implemented as its director.
But just one day later, Wainwright did an about-face and announced McDevitt would no longer be appointed as the director of the Albemarle agency. She told The Daily Advance that scrutiny over McDevitt’s alleged activities at the Smoky Mountain Center would make it difficult to cultivate much-needed trust at the Albemarle agency.
Not only has McDevitt missed out on the appointment to head another mental health agency, but he could lose his generous severance package from the Smoky Mountain Center.
The N.C. Department of State Treasurer last month weighed in on McDevitt’s severance package, which is equivalent to a year’s salary. The hefty sum may not be legal under state statutes. Specifically, state statute bars one employee from getting benefits not afforded to everyone else within an agency.
The treasurer’s office investigated the severance pay based on complaints from the public. It consulted with attorneys from the UNC School of Government in the process, which pointed out case precedent as well as state statutes.
“It appears that the one year’s severance pay is not permitted,” the state treasurer’s office wrote in a letter to the Smoky Mountain Center’s board. The state instructed the board to review the matter with its attorney, Jay Coward. Coward has been in communication with the state over the issue, but the board has not yet discussed whether to revoke the severance, something that will likely take place at an upcoming meeting, according to Board Member Dana Jones.
The state will keep an eye on the matter to make sure the board resolves it, said Sara Lang, director of communications for the state treasurer’s office.
“Staff of the Local Government Commission must ensure that this issue has been thoroughly reviewed from a legal standpoint and that public funds are being spent in accordance with the law,” Lang said.