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How a Philadelphia antiviolence grant improperly funneled $76,000 to city police staffers

The Guns Down Gloves Up program was among 31 grantees awarded $13.5 million by the city. It is now the target of a police Internal Affairs investigation, and a probe by the city Inspector General.

Philadelphia Police Captain Nashid Akil, center, and Officer George Gee, left, coaching in the Guns Down Gloves Up boxing program in October 2022.
Philadelphia Police Captain Nashid Akil, center, and Officer George Gee, left, coaching in the Guns Down Gloves Up boxing program in October 2022.Read moreJessica Griffin / Staff Photographer

The city has suspended a $392,000 antiviolence grant to a youth boxing program founded by a Philadelphia police captain who was removed from his post in October after an Inquirer investigation exposed his chronic absenteeism.

The grant for the Guns Down Gloves Up program, awarded in December 2021 to Epiphany Fellowship Church and Villanova University, is the subject of at least two investigations, a city spokesperson confirmed.

Former 22nd District Capt. Nashid Akil had freely described the program as his own — even though city employees are not eligible for city grants.

Nearly $76,000 went to Akil and nine other Philadelphia Police Department staffers, according to financial records obtained by The Inquirer. The grant application had specified Akil would not be paid.

The city put the grant payments “on pause” on Nov. 29, pending investigations by the Philadelphia Police Department and the Office of the Inspector General, an office that probes waste, fraud, and abuse of tax dollars, a city spokesperson said.

Epiphany Fellowship Church has dropped the program as well.

Epiphany pastor Eric Mason declined numerous interview requests. Bridgette M. Rice, the Villanova professor and Epiphany congregant named as the lead applicant on the grant, referred questions about the grant’s suspension to the city.

Philadelphia police spokesperson Sgt. Eric Gripp said the department had only recently been alerted to the payments to the officers. He could not say whether any had been paid grant money for work completed while they were on duty.

Guns Down Gloves Up was one of 31 programs that collectively received $13.5 million in what the city called Community Expansion Grants, part of a $155 million city effort to counter a historic surge in gun violence. (The city also issued more than 100 microgrants of up to $50,000 to grassroots initiatives.)

The Guns Down investigations raise concerns about the city’s vetting of grantee organizations and its oversight of how the money was spent, critics said.

Erica Atwood, the city’s deputy manager director who heads the Office of Criminal Justice and Public Safety, called it “an extraordinary circumstance. This is not something that we could have predicted.”

Once it was flagged, she said, “we put halts to any payments going forward.”

» READ MORE: Philly’s gun-violence spending is surging, but many funded programs lack clear goals to show progress

Other financial records for Guns Down Gloves Up, obtained by The Inquirer through open-records laws, reveal a fragmented paper trail of what public finance experts say are questionable expenditures and substandard documentation.

The result, said Kenneth A. Kriz, a professor of public policy at the University of Illinois at Springfield, is “You really have no way to track it.”

“We don’t know if it’s fraud or if it’s waste,” he said. “Worse, we don’t know whether the program is actually successful.”

‘Akil’s baby’

In early 2020, Akil and his aide at the 22nd District, Officer George Gee, who has a background as a boxing trainer, pitched the city’s Office of Violence Prevention on a pop-up boxing program as a solution for gun violence across the city.

Then, amid the pandemic, they went ahead and started running it, on 17th Street outside the district in North Philadelphia.

In September 2021, with Akil’s support, Epiphany Fellowship Church and Villanova University sought $798,000 in grant funding to expand the boxing program and evaluate its impact.

In a letter of support, Akil wrote that he and his officers would continue volunteering their time.

“Our officers are committed to this work,” Akil wrote.

The city awarded the grant, at half the requested funding, in December 2021. Within a month, nine Police Department employees had signed agreements to become paid contractors for the program, records show. Akil was paid $6,000 over the next nine months. Gee also signed an agreement, as did his wife and adult daughter, both Police Department employees. Combined, the Gee family collected more than $32,000.

Akil did not return calls from The Inquirer for this story. Gee declined an interview.

Akil had championed the program as his signature community engagement initiative — even as community members complained that he was elusive and staff lamented a leadership vacuum that fostered dysfunction, feuds, and physical scuffles within the district.

After Akil’s reassignment in October, the program was moved back to Epiphany. At the time, Rice characterized that move as seasonal, noting the program was designed to move indoors in the winter.

Although Epiphany applied for the grant, its role in Guns Down Gloves Up has been hazy. In a November interview, Rice said the program was “Akil’s baby.”

“We just sort of came on, Epiphany was providing space to host the program when it was run indoors and Villanova to bring in the behavioral health component and the evaluation,” she said.

» READ MORE: A key Philly gun violence prevention program is struggling to meet basic goals, new report says

As of last year, Akil described himself as substantially in charge of the program. Records show him and his officers managing funds to purchase food and supplies. Reporters’ emails and visits to Epiphany last fall to talk to the person in charge of the program were also directed back to the 22nd District.

In an October interview, Akil said involving his officers was key to a program goal of improving police-community relations. He said it was important for the youth that he, personally, was in the ring as a coach.

“Ain’t nothing like wanting to fight the captain,” he said.

Boom and bust

Leandra Gaines had been a fan of Guns Down Gloves Up, taking her 12-year-old son twice a week to the training sessions outside the police station, and later at Epiphany.

“It kept my son busy,” she said. “It taught him a skill. It helped him with his confidence and basically anger management.”

With city funds over the last year, the program treated participants to pizza or Chick-fil-A after practices, purchased $1,500 worth of duffel bags and championship belts, and offered $350 to participants who stuck with the program for four weeks. Participants received prepaid debit cards totaling at least $13,830, according to records.

Then, in early December, Gaines was notified that boxing had been canceled.

“It was upsetting,” she said — and confusing. The vague explanation she received was that one of the officers in charge was transferred.

Before funding was suspended, Guns Down Gloves Up had billed the city for more than $200,000. About half of that went to program-related activities: paying coaches, buying food and boxing gear, and paying incentives.

An additional $45,000 went to Epiphany, covering a 10% administrative fee for “overhead, copying, etc.,” and partially offsetting the salaries and fringe benefits of three church employees — including its communications director, a former City Council staffer.

Also, $6,000 was paid for cleaning services at the church. That was less than the $28,800 budgeted for weekly deep cleaning of the boxing gym. But some of the itemized invoices from the cleaning company described tasks like “bio clean pastor closet” and deep cleaning a kitchen appear unrelated to the boxing program.

Finally, an additional $45,000 was billed by Villanova University for monitoring and evaluation, as well as Villanova’s 10% administrative fee.

Rice, in a November interview, said that 50 youths were then enrolled in the research, but just 16 had completed the 12-week study period.

» READ MORE: Activists, tired of waiting for City Hall, are raising money to combat gun violence

Epiphany, in its grant application, reported an annual budget of $1.5 million fueled largely by online donations. But aspects of the church’s application were unusual.

The application guidelines state a “strong preference” for applicants who submitted an audited financial statement and corporate bylaws, and required applicants to reveal their board members. Epiphany submitted no audited statement or bylaws, and said its board consisted only of the church’s three pastors. As a church, Epiphany was also excused from an otherwise-required nonprofit document: an IRS Form 990.

The lack of an Epiphany financial audit seemed surprising for an organization reporting revenues that substantial — as was the city’s willingness to proceed without that audit, according to Teresa Harrison, a professor of economics and academic director of the Center for Nonprofit Governance at Drexel University.

“That’s generally standard for any kind of government-issued grant,” she said.

Urban Affairs Coalition, tasked with disbursing the grant money, said through a spokesperson it held no oversight function.

That responsibility lies with the city’s Office of Violence Prevention, the grant maker.

“It does seem like the way they set it up potentially has some governance concerns,” Harrison said.

Atwood said that her office will “work on auditing our own processes” going forward, but defended the program overall. There are now four city staffers assigned to managing and evaluating the grant program, but three did not start until June. “We stood up this program extraordinarily quick due to the need on the ground and the demand coming from City Council. I think what we were able to do with the amount of people we had goes above and beyond what is a reasonable human expectation.”

A hazy future

In November, after Akil’s ouster from the district, Rice said “the boxing program itself is self-sufficient to still run.”

Now, it’s unclear whether boxing at Epiphany might resume, with or without grant funding.

Before its suspension, the program had been extended through this June. Other programs that shared the Community Expansion Grant funds have also received extensions. Atwood said the city would be renewing some grants, and opening a new application round in early spring.

Guns Down Gloves Up continues to operate, under Gee’s leadership, at a city recreation center in Graduate Hospital — a temporary arrangement until the program finds a permanent new home, a city spokesperson said.

Why the church ceased hosting the program remains unclear.

Part of the grant was earmarked for renovations that would create a second boxing gym at Epiphany, more than doubling program capacity. Rice said that plan had been held up due to construction issues.

Though almost $9,000 worth of boxing equipment was purchased with city grant funds, it’s also not clear where that gear ended up.

Kriz, of the University of Illinois, said that if the program does resume, the city needs to provide more regular oversight and ongoing audits of grant spending to ensure it’s all aboveboard.

“That’s where you would catch a lot of these things, and say, you know, why are we paying to clean the pastor’s closet?”

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