2 Investigates: CDC gives millions of tax dollars to shady nonprofit

by: Jodie Fleischer Updated:

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DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. - The CDC is refusing to answer Channel 2 Action News' questions about a high-ranking employee who served on the board of a now-defunct nonprofit that's been the subject of a series of scandals.

The Save A Life Foundation (SALF) also happened to receive more than $3 million in CDC funding, much of it while that same employee was serving as the nonprofit's treasurer.

"Save A Life was a fraud, it can't be described as anything but a total fraud," said attorney Jennifer Bonjean, who represents a whistleblower who used to work there.

The nonprofit was based in a Chicago suburb, and in its heyday, claimed to have helped teach more than a million school children various first aid techniques.

But beginning in 2006, a series of investigations by the ABC station in Chicago debunked the nonprofit's founder as a fraud.

Carol Spizzirri had claimed to be a registered nurse in her bio on the SALF website and on various grant applications; but she wasn't. She's also accused of lying about the circumstances of her daughter's tragic accident that was the motivating force behind the creation of SALF.

"She was struck by a hit-and-run," Spizzirri recounted during a 2006 interview, "She bled to death before EMS arrived."

But police and hospital reports show Spizzirri's daughter was drunk and flipped her own car, and did not die at the accident scene.

When confronted, Spizzirri removed her microphone and walked out of the interview saying, "I'm done."

Within a few years, her nonprofit was also done, and gone was the more than $3 million in federal grants it had gotten from the CDC here in Atlanta.

"We as tax payers have every right to know what happened to that money," said Bonjean.

The CDC Connection

Doug Browne has worked for the CDC for more than 32 years, in various roles, including deputy director of the National Center for Injury Prevention, the same division of the CDC that administered the grant money to SALF. 

"Obviously I would assume the CDC doesn't know he was getting paid for his involvement on the executive board as the treasurer," said Bonjean, "That seemingly has no natural ties to the CDC or Doug Browne or Atlanta. It's very curious."

Investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer was curious, too, and filed several Freedom of Information Act requests in March, for Browne's personnel file and audits of how the $3.3 million was spent. The CDC still has not responded to those requests.

"That's what Save A Life was about, getting money from state and federal agencies and pretending to use them for public school, training children," said Annabel Melongo, Bonjean's client.

Melongo worked at SALF for about six months.  

Fleischer asked her about Browne's role on the executive board.

"The only thing I know is that Doug Browne was the treasurer, that's it. I cannot even see Doug Browne now and tell you this is Doug Browne," Melongo replied, "It was just a name and a title."

But records show, despite what Browne told the CDC, it was also a salary.

In 2007, even after the Chicago ABC investigation, SALF board members, including Browne, voted to give themselves $40,000 per year, plus benefits.

Fleischer asked Melongo, "What was [Browne] doing to get that $40,000 a year salary?"

"Nothing," replied Melongo, chuckling, "Nothing that I know of.

The CDC  'Investigation'

The CDC says it investigated Browne's role at SALF and eventually provided Channel 2 Action News a two-page report, heavily redacted, which says Browne “has never reported receiving any income from the [Save A Life] Foundation.”

He only reported receiving reimbursement for travel expenses from the annual SALF conferences.

Browne told the CDC his SALF work was as a member of its advisory board, which is different from the executive board on which he actually served for five years. 

The CDC also wrote that an allegation of improper grants administration 'cannot be substantiated', even though the nonprofit's annual report lists Browne as deputy director of the same CDC division that provided those millions.

"I think it's always suspicious when a governmental agency refuses to be transparent about its own investigation," said Bonjean, "I mean you'd have to be a real idiot not to see the connections there."

The group of whistleblowers who contacted Channel 2 Action News with these allegations first reported the same information to the CDC's parent agency, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, five years ago.

The HHS office of inspector general ordered the CDC to do the internal investigation, but had no record of the resulting report in its files, meaning it was never sent back up for review. 

After several years of trying, those whistleblowers and even a Georgia congressman assisting them, could not obtain a copy of the CDC's investigation.

The CDC declined Fleischer's repeated requests for interviews with the official who did that investigation and Browne himself. An email and knocks on the door of his home went unanswered.

In an email, the CDC spokesman wrote "I don't have anything else unless you can provide proof of the payments.

Records show the state of Illinois also granted roughly $6 million to SALF.

The Illinois attorney general's office confirmed it has an open investigation into the Save A Life Foundation, particularly what happened to hundreds of thousands of dollars in listed assets when the nonprofit dissolved.

Doug Browne's signature is on the last financial filing, along with Spizzirri's. They listed zeroes in every category. Correspondence indicates the attorney general's staffers did not find that accounting sufficient.

Records show the attorney general's investigation began at least as early as 2010. The state of Illinois will not release investigative records as long as the case as listed as 'open.'

"They say it's an ongoing investigation for the sole purpose of keeping it secret and to avoid transparency," said Bonjean, "You're being scammed as a taxpayer and nobody seems to care."

Blowing the Whistle

Annabel Melongo never intended to become a whistleblower.

She had found the information-technology job at SALF through a temp agency. She says her relationship with Spizzirri quickly deteriorated after she questioned requests to alter SALF financial records. Spizzirri fired Melongo and then later claimed she crashed the nonprofit's computer servers in an effort to destroy financial records.

This occurred around the same time as the series of Chicago ABC investigations.

Melongo was arrested, charged with computer tampering and wiretapping, and spent two years in jail while awaiting trial. She was later exonerated on all of the charges.

She now has a pending federal lawsuit alleging malicious prosecution, false arrest and imprisonment, and retaliation.

Melongo told Channel 2 Action News when she received SALF's financial records via subpoena for her cases, checks to Doug Browne were contained in that set of documents. A judge has since required her to return those checks to the court, so she no longer has the copies.

She says the CDC or Illinois attorney general should certainly be able to obtain SALF records, if anyone really wants to investigate.

"It's all there. It doesn't take you five years to find that information," said Melongo. "All they need is to subpoena the documents."