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

Nebraska contracted with the agency until terminating the contract early last December

By: - November 11, 2022 6:08 pm
Saint Francis Ministries

Kansas-based Saint Frances Ministries. (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 in 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.

In 2019, Nebraska contracted with Saint Francis to oversee its child welfare system. State officials terminated that contract this past December, three years before its end date, saying Saint Francis failed to deliver on a number of obligations.

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 were 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.”

This article first appeared in the Kansas Reflector, a sister site of the Nebraska Examiner in the States Newsroom Network

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor of the Kansas Reflector. He was the Kansas Press Association’s 2021 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. A lifelong Kansan, he graduated from Emporia State University in 2004 as a Shepherd Scholar with a degree in English.