Where in the world is Louanne Aponte?
That's what the directors of the nonprofit Family Connections would like to know – as would the Travis County District Attorney's Office.
Family Connections is a social services organization that, by its own count, helps about 32,000 families a year in Central Texas with child-raising and child-development issues, especially those that might be called "at-risk" families. On Monday, Family Connections, which employs more than 30 people, announced it would be closing its doors at the end of the month. That came just one working day after FC board Chair Vielka Ridley told the Chronicle that Louanne Aponte, its former executive director, was being investigated for financial "irregularities."
Ridley says FC is missing a substantial sum of money. She was unable to say exactly how much, but a source close to the organization said it may be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Family Connections receives funding from a variety of private and public sources, including city, state, and federal grants. (On April 9, Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Director David Lurie asked City Auditor Kenneth Mory for a review of the city's contracts with FC.) Ridley said FC has also filed a civil suit against Aponte.
Travis County Assistant District Attorney Gregg Cox reports that two arrest warrants have been issued for Aponte on charges of tampering with government records.
But Aponte's whereabouts are uncertain. Cox says he's "comfortable" in saying that Aponte has probably left the United States, "but I can't confirm it." Ridley says she has "no idea" if Aponte has left, but a source close to the organization, after telling the Chronicle that Aponte's husband, Marco, is Venezuelan, speculated that she may have fled to that country. A phone call to the Aponte's southwest Austin residence was answered by someone, apparently male, who offered to take a message for Louanne Aponte. Asked if he could answer questions, he said, "Not really," and hung up.
"At the end of February, we were contacted by auditors that were here doing a routine audit of some contracts, and they called the board to come down to Family Connections for a meeting because they wanted to share with us some irregularities they found," says Ridley. "They shared with us that the previous audits that were submitted by an independent accountant were fraudulent ... and there was some discrepancy in the financial records.
"At that point, we contacted [Aponte] and put her on leave that Friday, the last day of February [the 26th]," Ridley says. "By Friday afternoon, about 5, the auditors gave us a verbal summary of what they'd found, indicating that several years back, it appears, there had been some irregularities. On March 1, we placed her on leave without pay."
And it got worse, said Ridley: When the accountants contacted the company that was supposed to have prepared the fraudulent audits, they said they had never done an audit for this agency. Ridley says the board has called in more auditors, accountants, and legal counsel to further examine the records and expects that work to be complete some time this month. "We've been going through the financial records here, what we could find, and trying to re-create as much as we could," says Ridley. "It appears like every single day we're finding more discrepancies. ... We turned our records over to the D.A." Among those discrepancies: Ridley says Aponte misrepresented her education, claiming a master's degree from St. Edward's University, though she had only a bachelor's degree in economics.
On March 11, Ridley says, FC received an e-mail from Aponte announcing her retirement. FC's internal bookkeeper has also resigned, although she is not implicated in the scandal.
Cox said he can't share many details of the ongoing investigation but said bond for Aponte has been set at $15,000 per charge, and "we expect to add more charges."
Asked to briefly describe the work Family Connections does, Ridley says: "Support services to children and the adults in their lives. Anywhere from child care resource and referrals, vouchers for families that are low-income, families that are homeless or previously homeless while they're getting on their feet and starting to work. We have a very large unit called Parents of Newborns. You know how they say children are born without a manual? Well, we actually have a manual. We have staff that go out to the hospitals and meet with new moms within the first three days of delivery, and they're there to provide support to those new families." Other issues FC helps with include breast-feeding, emotional stability, and postpartum mental health counseling, and the staff also does follow-up visits after the family leaves the hospital. The organization won Austin Chronicle "Best of Austin" awards in 1996 (Best Thing the Government's Done for Your Kids) and 2006 (Best Toy Library).
"We [have] actively, since day one, been working with the D.A. and our legal counsel, and now with our funders, to see if this goes a different direction," Ridley says. "Hopefully other agencies can take up those programs, and those services can continue without interruption to the families." She says thus far there's been no interruption in services.
"This is tragic, beyond tragic," Ridley says. "It's a sad day. ... It's a tragedy for a lot of the families."