December 21, 2014

Elyria
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Ex-offender’s group gets deal with county

ELYRIA — The Lorain County Children and Families Council has signed a deal with an organization that is supposed to help youthful offenders reintegrate into society and whose CEO and founder, Eddie McNeal II, was most recently convicted of a crime in April.

The $41.67-per-hour memorandum of understanding between the council and The Re-In-Tree Association, which also refers to itself as TRITA, was approved last week by county commissioners. The contract was retroactive to May 15 and runs through June 30, 2014.

McNeal

McNeal

Council Director Melissa Stefano said Thursday that her agency has yet to call upon TRITA to perform services helping 18- to 21-year-old offenders re-enter society after being incarcerated by the Ohio Department of Youth Services.

“What he provides in the community is very unique,” she said.

Stefano said she saw McNeal speak at a conference at Lorain County Community College a few months ago and later met with him to learn more about his organization.

She said she never checked out McNeal himself but added that she doesn’t normally do a background check on the leaders of organizations she works with.

“He just said he had a board that he works with and volunteers in his organization,” Stefano said.

The website listed on the paperwork McNeal provided to Stefano identifies four board members, including Lorain attorney Zachary Simonoff. All of the board members named on the website resigned last fall.

McNeal didn’t respond to multiple phone calls and emails Thursday.

A criminal record

McNeal, 42, has a criminal record that dates back to 1992, when he was charged with aggravated robbery and felonious assault for committing a robbery at a Pizza Hut restaurant in Lorain on May 7, 1992, according to court records.

McNeal pleaded guilty to the charges and was sentenced to prison in that case after his effort to withdraw his plea was rejected.

Following his release, McNeal’s criminal record largely consisted of traffic violations, including arrests on DUI charges in 1997, 2002 and 2008, although Elyria Municipal Court records show some of those cases were pleaded down to reduced charges.

He also was charged with criminal damaging in October 2011 after allegedly throwing a rock that damaged the windshield of a car owned by the mother of Roxanne Biagi, his ex-girlfriend who also once served TRITA as a board member and volunteer. McNeal and Biagi had been in an argument earlier that day in which she broke a window at his home, but she wasn’t charged.

McNeal allegedly threw the rock later in retaliation, but the charge in that case was later dismissed.

McNeal’s most recent arrest came in the early morning hours of Nov. 10, 2012, when Biagi called police to report he was pounding on her door — they lived next door to one another — and sending her threatening text messages.

“Ms. Biagi explained that she has had enough of Mr. McNeal using her as a punching bag and was doing as the police had advised her in the past and notify(ing) them when Mr. McNeal makes threats or refuses to leave her alone,” the police report on the November incident said.

McNeal was originally charged with menacing and telephone harassment in the case, but the harassment charge was dropped and the menacing charge was amended to persistent disorderly conduct when he pleaded no contest in April, Elyria Municipal Court records showed.

He was given a 30-day suspended jail sentence and a $250 fine. Court records indicated that $200 of that fine was suspended and the remainder forgiven after he performed five hours of community service for TRITA. He also was ordered to have no contact with Biagi for two years.

After his arrest in November, McNeal sent out an email to his supporters saying he was stepping back from TRITA, alluding to “personal issues” he needed to deal with.

“I will not burden you with the details of my current situation but I will state that in life we are thrown a great deal of turmoil and many issues arise that are not fair and from a spiteful selfishness to destroy one(‘)s good name (and to) try to inflict hardship on others,” McNeal wrote.

Re-In-Tree

When it was formed as a nonprofit organization in 2011, the goal of The Re-In-Tree Association was “to reconnect formerly incarcerated individuals back to their families and communities,” according to paperwork filed with the Ohio secretary of state.

“We will ensure adequate housing, transitional housing, and connections to community resources in terms of family and parenting skills, education, substance abuse, mental health, and employment,” the documents stated.

It was a noble goal that Simonoff, who works as a criminal defense attorney, said he fully supported when he agreed to join the board.

But he said the idea never really lived up to its potential, and he and other board members resigned in September and October.

“He wasn’t meeting our expectations, and I had other things to do,” Simonoff said.

But in his resignation letter, obtained by The Chronicle-Telegram, Simonoff wrote that he was distressed about other issues at TRITA, including concerns about how money was being handled as well as “the amount of infighting and allegations of sexual misconduct.”

“Regardless of the truth of these allegations (and I pass no judgment) I believe that the mere accusations taint our efforts,” Simonoff wrote.

Larry Deitcher, another board member who resigned last year, said he, too, had serious concerns about the direction of TRITA, although he declined to discuss specifics. His wife also had served as a board member and quit, he said.

“I resigned because of ethical issues that were going on at the time,” he said.

Both Simonoff and Deitcher said they were upset to learn that their names, photos and biographies were still on a TRITA website listing them as board members, especially since Deitcher said he took the site down in December after McNeal didn’t remove the information on his own.

Simonoff said he warned McNeal again on Thursday to remove the former board members from the site or he would take legal action to force him to comply.

Deitcher also said he wonders just how effective McNeal can be at counseling newly released offenders given his own recent troubles with the law.

“If you want to teach people not to reoffend and not catch new cases, then you shouldn’t be catching new cases and reoffending,” he said.

TRITA also now finds itself without an office.

Tim Williams, co-pastor of Greater Victories Christian Ministries in Lorain, said the church decided not to renew TRITA’s lease a few weeks ago and the group is no longer working out of Greater Victories’ Reid Avenue facility.

“We aren’t going to tie up space that’s not being productive,” Williams said.

He said he isn’t overly familiar with the inner workings of TRITA, although he was aware of both McNeal’s recent arrest and his problems with high turnover on his board. Williams said the issues facing McNeal and TRITA are unfortunate because the group could fill a vital need in the community by helping convicts reintegrate into society.

“Hopefully this bump in the road doesn’t discourage him from refocusing,” Williams said.

County work

According to McNeal’s biography on the TRITA website, his stint in prison changed him and he became determined to “thwart the stigma of being an EX-OFFENDER and lead those of his family into a lighted path where taking the right course of action at all times will lead to promising futures.”

“Eddie has dedicated his life to righting his wrongs in life and has dedicated many hours of service to his community through various organizations,” the biography said.

Among the organizations listed are the Lorain County Domestic Relations Court, Voices for Children, the Lorain County Urban League and the Lorain County Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services Board.

Voices for Children confirmed that McNeal volunteered for the organization between 2005 and 2010. He was formally removed from the list of volunteers at the group in February for lack of involvement and outdated training.

Lorain County Auditor Craig Snodgrass’ office had paperwork showing that McNeal was paid $1,255.43 in 2011 as a contractor for the Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services Board.

County Commissioner Ted Kalo said he attended a fundraiser for TRITA last year, but that was the only time he recalls ever meeting McNeal.

Kalo said he was unaware of McNeal’s problems when the commissioners voted on the contract last week. He said contracts typically only make it to the commissioners after they have been vetted by whatever agency will be using them, in this case the Children and Families Council.

He said the issue bears further examination.

“We’ll have to re-evaluate how we award these (memorandums of understanding),” Kalo said.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com.