Audit reveals out-of-state vendors were largest expense for Minneapolis’ first Black business expo, raises ‘conflict of interest’ questions

Black business expo audit

Black business expo audit

An independent analysis of Minneapolis’ inaugural “I Am My Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams” Expo, including a review of nearly 300,000 documents and emails, revealed nearly half of the talent and services hired for the event with a self-proclaimed goal of “celebrat[ing] the Black lived experience in Minneapolis…” came in from out of state and raised questions about the relationship between the former head of the department responsible for carrying out the event and a Georgia company hired to “curate, manage, and execute” it.

Out-of-state vendors accounted for the largest expense to the city out of roughly $682,000 in expenditures, nearly $270,000 Minneapolis taxpayer dollars, according to the report prepared by Chicago-based public accounting and consulting firm Baker Tilly US, LLP.

Baker Tilly global forensics partner Tim Voncina presented the findings from phase one of its audit to the Minneapolis Audit Committee on Tuesday morning.

“Particularly concerning about this is this about investing and building wealth in a particular community, in this case in our Black community,” City Council Vice President and Audit Committee Chair Linea Palmisano said in an interview directly following the presentation. “And just the hard numbers here today show that this missed the mark on that significantly.”

Palmisano questioned the relationship between Tyeastia Green, the former head of the city’s Racial Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Department, and Casey Ellerby, the owner of Georgia-based company Touched Apparel, which was contracted to manage the event.

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“I was concerned. I wanted to understand how that decision was made,” Palmisano said. “This vendor appears to have been engaged very early in the process.”

Asked by committee member Lily Hosbein if Baker Tilly’s review showed signs of “mal intent or conflict of interest,” Voncina replied, “Not in the documentation provided.”

The report does lay out the timeline of the event planning process, and it showed that Green was actively pursuing Touched Apparel more than two months before anyone else was considered through the city’s formal Request for Proposal (RFP) process.

“In certain types of contracts, the RFP is supposed to go out to either the general public or the Target Market Program with qualifying vendors being the first to have an opportunity to bid on the project,” Voncina explained. “That wasn’t done.”

“So that kind of went around the intended requirements of the program and TMP altogether,” he continued.

“It’s really important to me that the people that review RFPs that come from procurement processes not have any conflict of interest with any of the RFP respondents, and that’s something we need to hold to all of the time,” Palmisano said when asked about the timeline. “So I think there’s some further investigation of that.”

Green did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

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Voncina also shared recommendations for the city going forward, including that the city should consider implementing a “procurement and purchasing training program” and a “help desk” for employees to contact with questions about the process. The city should also consider creating a detailed framework for planning large-scale events in the future, the report reads.

There was also a recommendation for the city to review a February payment of $33,500 to Touched Apparel “and explore potential options to recoup the portion of the amount” that was intended for a Georgia artist who backed out of the expo the night before.

City Auditor Ryan Patrick said he’s “drawn zero conclusions about the way in which money was spent” because he hasn’t had a chance to review the entire report yet.

Tuesday’s findings were the results of phase one of a multi-phase audit, Voncina said.