Children of Synanon

An acclaimed Tucson drug-treatment program went suddenly, mysteriouly bankrupt. Administrators blame the board of directors. But others are questioning the administrators and their history at the notorious drug-treatment empire known as Synanon.

"There could be no basis for the attack whatsoever. But everyone would keep adding made-up anecdotes to beat the guy down until he cries, even if he hadn't done anything," Mitchell says.

Everyone at Synanon played the game several evenings a week--including Arbiter, Mullen and Fleishman. They later adopted a variation of the game for use at Amity, calling it the "circle" and removing some of the game's more vicious components.

But the principle of the game--launching personal attacks on others whether true or not--appears to be at the heart of the Mullen-Arbiter-Fleishman conspiracy scenario that accuses former board members of setting out to destroy Amity.

Their sharp attacks, based on meager evidence, shift quickly from one target to another, with the common theme that all the alleged wrongdoers are friends.

The center of their furious assault is a former Amity accountant, whom the trio attempts to discredit by first besmirching the accountant's personal and professional reputation, then linking her to other board members.

The accountant, Michelle Quintenilla, joined Amity in the fall of 1991 after Mullen went to the board seeking financial help. Board members Jon Young and John Gisi selected Quintenilla, even though she had no previous accounting experience with a nonprofit business like Amity that relied on federal and state grants.

Quintenilla immediately installed a formal accounting system and instituted other reforms, which soon brought her into conflict with management.

Her personality also didn't jibe with Amity's top management, and Quintenilla soon found herself as the odd person out.

"I didn't like her," Mullen says. "I didn't trust her."
Quintenilla declined to be interviewed for this story.
In the spring of 1992, Quintenilla changed the way Amity received its federal grant money. In the past, Amity mailed vouchers to the government showing bills it needed to pay, and the government would later send Amity money to cover the expenses.

Quintenilla upgraded Amity's cash-flow system by tapping into a government program that allowed the funds to be transferred electronically. The change gave Amity much quicker access to cash.

This seemingly minor technical change has become the focal point in the alleged conspiracy to wreck Amity. It was this single incident that Mullen says caused Amity's financial collapse.

And, it was done purposely, he says.
"I don't think that was a mistake," he says.
Mullen claims that when Quintenilla switched to the electronic withdrawal system, she was supposed to change Amity's accounting method from an accrual basis to a cash basis. The two methods differ chiefly in when a business must account for its bills.

Mullen says Quintenilla's failure to make the accounting adjustment led him to believe he had funds available for spending on nonfederal programs, when, in fact, he didn't.

"We thought we had the money and could spend it how we chose. We did that," he says.

This mistake eventually led to Amity overspending its federal grants by $517,000, forcing it into bankruptcy, Mullen says.

Mullen, Arbiter and Fleishman say Quintenilla made this error with the intention of destroying Amity. And, they say, she made the mistake in collusion with certain board members--particularly Young and Gisi, since they hired her.

The conspiracy widens, Mullen says, when Amity's independent auditors--whom he claims are friends of Quintenilla's and Young's--failed to detect the cash/accrual accounting error for two years.

The failure of the auditing firm, Frizzell, Senkerick & Associates, to discover the accounting error meant that Amity sent false financial reports to the federal government for two years, Mullen says.

Fixing blame follows predictably on the heels of most controversies, but fixing blame hardly describes the conclusions drawn by Mullen and his colleagues. The ex-Synanonites' version of Amity's bookkeeping has far less to do with the facts revealed in the audits and investigations than it does with the well-learned techniques of the Synanon game.

"There is something really, really wrong with Jon Young, Michelle and Frizzell," Mullen says. "There's some kind of allegiance there," he adds, providing nothing to support the claim. Unlike the game, Young, Quintenilla and Frizzell are not included in the circle to challenge Mullen's unproven accusations.

Once the feds discovered the overspending, Amity was placed on severe restrictions that eventually forced it to transfer all of its federal grants to other nonprofit agencies. The federal government soon sent auditors to Amity to comb through its books and review past audits. It was the beginning of the end for most of Amity's programs.

In the months after the September 1994 discovery that Amity owed the government more than a half-million dollars, Mullen says Frizzell wrote a harsh audit report that shifted blame for missing the accounting mistake from itself to Amity management.

"The scheme from that point on was to hang it on me and Naya and exonerate themselves," Mullen says, painting himself and Naya as victims and invoking yet another tactic favored by Synanon in the 1970s.

"One of the ways Synanon traditionally built up support was to portray itself as the victim of discrimination," says newspaperman Mitchell.

The accusations against Quintenilla, Young, Gisi and Frizzell all have a ring of truth to them. After all, Quintenilla failed to adjust the accounting and Young and Gisi recommended she should be hired. Frizzell also missed the accounting error for more than two years.

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