Records Show Centro's Spent Thousands of Taxpayer Dollars on Lobbying, Private Events, Personal Travel

According to records, Centro used over $2,000 in taxpayer funds to cater this private golf event in 2015. - Facebook via Downtown SATX
Facebook via Downtown SATX
According to records, Centro used over $2,000 in taxpayer funds to cater this private golf event in 2015.
Centro's money drama is far from over.

In November, Centro (the nonprofit that contracts with the city to support downtown development) announced a supposedly recent discovery: a former staff accountant had embezzled nearly $300,000 in a blend of city and privately-donated dollars. Centro CEO Pat DiGiovanni immediately resigned, claiming he knew nothing about the financial mishaps.

But, while he may have been in the dark about the accounting scheme, we now know he was very much involved in other unchecked ways the organization handled taxpayer dollars. According to a records request by the San Antonio Express-News, Centro spent tens of thousands of city dollars on parties, lobbying, fundraisers, last-minute trips, and festivals outside of downtown. All of this took place under DiGiovanni's watch — including a $281 check to his son for social media work and $586 to cover him and his wife's plane tickets to Chicago.

It's important to note that Centro is split into two different nonprofits: The Centro Alliance, a downtown developer advocacy group that's entirely funded by private donations, and Centro San Antonio, which manages the downtown "public improvement district" (also known as PID) for the city using taxpayer dollars. Each month, Centro sends invoices to the city to cover PID-applicable costs, and the city complies. Since October, 2013, the city has given Centro $18.9 million, according to records obtained by the paper. But, as the Express-News' Richard Webner reports, that money hasn't solely been used to improve public spaces downtown.

Webner found that $89,000 of those taxpayer bucks went to pay for the party Centro held downtown when it got a new logo ($775 went to a stilt walker hired to work that event).

Centro also spent no less than $163,000 in PID dollars on consulting work to help the nonprofit convince the city to hand over a significant chunk of the year's $850 million bond. Essentially, the nonprofit used city dollars to lobby the city itself. And it was successful. The city gave Centro $140 million in dollars for bond projects they lobbied hard for — expanded lanes on the Broadway corridor, development along San Pedro Creek and the adjacent area dubbed Zona Cultural, and development in Hemisfair Park.

Centro wasn't the only organization to benefit from this use of public funds. According to DiGiovanni, members of the bond committee who chose these projects "were asked to leave their own agendas and preconceived notions at the door." But most of its members, including Pete Cortez (owner of Zona Cultural's Mi Tierra) and Madison Smith (with Overland Partners, the architecture firm designing the $200-million Hemisfair project) all worked for companies that would benefit immensely from the bond — far more than the average San Antonian they were supposedly planning for.

Centro's mission is to create a "vibrant and prosperous downtown that benefits the entire San Antonio community" and "mobilize people and resources to build a more prosperous downtown." I guess spending thousands of dollars to help out development friends could fall into the "prosperity" category — but only for a select few.

Webner found the nonprofit also used PID funds to sponsor festivals that fell outside of downtown. Like $7,500 for the 2016 Mala Luna Music Festival at the Lone Star Brewery and $1,500 for the 2016 Richter Fest music festival held at Broadway News.

Centro also spent $3,274 on a last-minute trip to Chicago to meet with executives of Entertainment Cruises, another group Centro lobbied the city to manage the River Walk's barges. A whopping $2,337 was spent on plane tickets, and the rest on high-end hotel rooms, dinners, and drinks.

Altogether, Webner reports, Centro used taxpayer dollars to cover over $12,000 on meals and $12,000 on flights and hotels during fiscal year 2017. A hefty slice of the meal expenses came from events where Centro was fundraising for the Centro Alliance.

Trish DeBerry, CEO of the DeBerry Group, a public relations firm, and Centro board member told the Express-News there was an obvious lack of financial oversight in the nonprofit — but board members weren't aware of it until now.

"You see what we see as a board," she said. "It’s disappointing, and there’s a reason why Pat (DiGiovanni) tendered his resignation."

DiGiovanni sees it differently. He told Webner: "I have not taken one dime from Centro that I wasn’t entitled to."

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