Martin: The Lurone Jennings problem

Lurone Jennings, head of the city's Department of Youth and Family Development, formerly was executive director of the Bethlehem Center.
photo Columnist David Martin

Anyone who has paid an iota of attention to Chattanooga's philanthropic, public education, community building and faith-based sectors over the years would likely never have thought they'd read an article with the above headline.

With stints as a minister, teacher, coach, principal, nonprofit executive and now head of the city's Department of Youth and Family Development, it's inarguable Lurone "Coach" Jennings has long been a force for good in Chattanooga.

It's also inarguable he's gotten off with the lightest slap on the wrist imaginable by the city of Chattanooga after knowingly using his official city position to misappropriate $18,500 of grant money to his daughter's 501(c)(3) organization, Journey Educational Services.

One week! Goodness.

When news broke last Friday that Jennings had funneled nearly two-thirds of a Community Foundation grant to his daughter, many Chattanoogans were left scratching their heads, wondering, "How could this be? Not Lurone." Others were calling for Jennings' (professional) head. Admittedly, my first reaction was to say he should be immediately fired.

The most puzzling part of the report issued by City Auditor Stan Sewell was that Jennings knew exactly what he was doing when he siphoned money to his daughter that instead was supposed to provide temporary jobs, work scholarships and other educational services.

Clearly it was no clerical error. And what's more, he anticipated he would land in hot water. According to the auditor's memo, Jennings said he "expected it would come back to haunt him." Yet he still did it. Which begs the question: If he knew what he was doing was wrong at the time he did it, is he sorry for doing it, or sorry he got caught? Only he knows the answer to that, I suppose.

Yet there are other, bigger questions left unanswered in all this, namely: How in the world does the city think a weeklong suspension is sufficient for those actions? And dollar by dollar, where did the money go?

Yes, we've been told the money went to fund Journey Educational Services "summer camps," but has anyone looked more deeply into that claim? Is there proof in the form of receipts or other paperwork? How many kids attended those camps? What activities did those camps consist of? And what exactly did the money pay for executive compensation?

If you can't tell what I'm getting at, let me be more clear: How much, if any, of that $18,500 eventually made it to the personal checking account of Jennings' daughter? Because if an inordinate amount did find it's way there, this whole thing starts looking more like a bona fide scandal.

One of the more vague passages from the report was that "Mr. Jennings stated his daughter was at a crucial time and he had not been able to do things to help her in the past." Wait, so did he mean that his daughter was personally at a "crucial time" and that he wanted to help her, or was he referencing the financial standing of her organization? Huge distinction there.

All of the questions I've posed are fair - I'm sure there are others - and answers already should have been provided. Hopefully, they will be soon.

Now back to the headline of this column. Jennings' service to the city is a net positive. No argument over that. Given his previously stellar reputation, firing him would likely carry a political liability. Yet the week's vacation (I mean suspension) is also an election season liability.

Worse, the slap on the wrist sets an extremely dangerous precedent. Is this how rogue acts will be treated henceforth by our current mayoral administration?

For the city's sake, I hope not.

Contact David Allen Martin at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @DMart423.