By Pat Anson, PNN Editor
A former board member of the U.S. Pain Foundation is raising questions about how former CEO Paul Gileno was able to misappropriate over $2 million in funds from the Connecticut-based non-profit.
Gileno pleaded guilty to fraud and tax evasion charges in June and is awaiting sentencing. Federal prosecutors say Gileno used donated funds in the charity’s bank account to write checks to himself and other people for his own personal benefit. The money was used to pay Gileno’s mortgage, car payments, loans to his brothers, and a visit to Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. The misuse of funds allegedly went undetected for three years.
“I still find it difficult to believe that nobody else who’d been in upper management of the foundation for several years, knew anything regarding the going out and coming in of money/funds,” former board member Suzanne Stewart recently wrote in her blog.
Stewart was a volunteer “ambassador” at U.S. Pain before she was appointed to the board in January, 2018 – a tumultuous time in the charity’s history, as the extent of the misuse of funds was just becoming known. Stewart resigned from the board 8 months later and has remained relatively silent about her board experience, until now.
Stewart wrote in her blog that she was initially excited to join the board, but soon realized something was amiss when she called another board member.
“I called to ask her a few questions, such as: ‘What was it like, being on the Board? What do we do as Board Members etc?’ She laughed & told me that ‘there was no real Board of Directors’. She added that they’d never even had a board meeting!” said Stewart, who lives with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome and other chronic pain conditions.
“I was a bit disappointed at hearing this news. But it was soon confirmed. The Board of Directors of the US Pain Foundation, were actually just photographs on the USPF website, prior to January, 2018. There was no true Board of Directors. There had been no board meetings or elections.”
Gileno founded the Connecticut Pain Foundation in 2006 after he was disabled by a back injury. In 2011, he launched U.S. Pain and registered as a charity in the state. Connecticut state law requires non-profits to have annual board meetings and to elect their directors and officers.
“So I’m guessing there was there no secretary or treasurer? I’m guessing this means that nobody had to get permission to write checks?” Stewart asks. “Didn’t they have to answer to anyone about how or where to spend donation monies? How does the President, Vice President & Executive Director & other upper management, not know what & where money is coming in and/or going out?”
According to an audit and U.S. Pain’s tax returns, Gileno misappropriated over $2,055,000 from the charity from 2016 to 2018. Nicole Hemmenway, the current acting CEO, was vice-president and board chair at the time. Two other longtime board members, Wendy Foster and Ellen Lennox Smith, still serve as directors. And Lori Monarca remains as Executive Office Manager, according to U.S. Pain’s website.
Only Gileno has been charged with a crime.
“It seems to me that when upper management realized that things had somehow gotten out of hand and that the USPF might be slipping away, they decided to get lawyers and accountants involved in an attempt to ‘fix’ a situation that they’d created. It seemed to have finally become something larger that they could no longer handle alone,” Stewart wrote.
“Over the following months, I found out what a mess things were and I immediately wanted to resign. I was advised by one of the attorneys, that ‘it wouldn’t look good’ for USPF, if anyone on the Board resigned during that time.”
Gileno did not comment on Stewart’s post, but praised her work as a patient advocate.
“I can say that I have always admired Suzanne and she is an amazing advocate and I respect her dearly. She has an amazing and supportive husband and family,” Gileno said in an email.
‘The Very Last Straw’
Stewart eventually resigned because she was unhappy with decisions being made by Hemmenway and the rest of the board. A redacted version of Stewart’s resignation letter was posted on her blog, in which she complained about being “left in the dark” and not knowing “where money is going or where it comes from.”
“The very last straw for me was when the Interim CEO & the rest of the Board, contemplated not telling the USPF ‘In-person’ support group leaders that they were no longer covered by insurance. I was the only Board member who said that I’d have no part of that,” wrote Stewart, who did not respond to a request for comment from PNN for this story.
Hemmenway also did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement last December, she said that Gileno “repeatedly misled and concealed information from the Board of Directors and staff.”
Gileno maintains that he kept the board informed.
“They are trying to cover their asses for being (an) inadequate board I guess,” Gileno told PNN last year. “I never misled them. They were part of U.S. Pain for over 10 years and I talked with them daily. Nicole and I were close like a brother and sister and I never hid one thing.”
Whether the board knew about the misuse of funds or not, nonprofit experts say board members have a fiduciary responsibility to provide oversight and know how money is being spent.
“U.S. Pain board members claim they did not know about their former CEO’s misuse of funds. This, however, does not change the fact that they should have known, and are, in fact, required by law to have controls in place to ensure those funds are used for the benefit of its stakeholders,” says Stefanie Lee Berardi, a patient advocate and grant writer who worked in nonprofit management.
“Serving on a board of directors is a great opportunity to contribute your time and talent to non-profit organizations who are doing great work. However, you should know that when you accept that position, you have a legal responsibility to use good judgement when making decisions on behalf of the organization, to put the organization’s interests before your own, and to ensure the organization is legally compliant.”
Gileno remains under investigation by the Connecticut Attorney General’s office, which may seek a court order to prevent him from ever serving again as a nonprofit officer or director.
Under state law, a Superior Court Judge could remove non-profit directors “engaged in fraudulent or dishonest conduct or gross abuse of authority or discretion,” but no such action against U.S. Pain appears likely.
“As much as we would like to have seen their entire board ousted, the truth of the matter is that the only way that happens is if the state shuts them down. So far, with the completion of their audit, they have likely done enough to satisfy the state,” said Berardi, who thinks U.S. Pain should find new directors and officers to manage the organization.
“If we are looking at best practices for board management, they absolutely should have a comprehensive plan for recruitment, induction, development, and succession. These board functions should be enumerated in the bylaws, updated at regular intervals, and formally adopted,” she said. “Recruiting ‘new blood’ should just be regular order.”
(Update: On October 1, 2019 U.S. Pain announced the appointment of Shawn Dickens to its board of directors, filling the seat vacated by Suzanne Stewart nearly a year earlier.)
At one time, U.S. Pain claimed to be the nation’s largest pain patient advocacy group, with over 90,000 members and nearly a quarter of a million social media followers. It was a dubious claim, as the non-profit later admitted having only 15,000 people on an email subscriber list.
According to the audit and U.S. Pain’s 2018 tax return (the organization’s 2016 and 2017 returns were delinquent and filed late), the charity spent over $1.2 million last year on salaries, employee benefits, lawyers, accountants, tax penalties and business losses – including a failed attempt to operate a bakery.