GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Two former leaders of a Michigan nonprofit have been accused of causing the nonprofit over $600,000 in damages, wiping out the nonprofit and leaving its future uncertain, court documents say.
Now, the nonprofit has filed a lawsuit against its former CEO and director of finance and administration.
Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative (ELNC) is a Michigan nonprofit that partners with other organizations to support underserved and at-risk youth in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Battle Creek.
In a complaint filed Friday, ELNC accused Dr. Nkechy Ekere Ezeh, its founder and former CEO, and Sharon Killebrew, its former director of finance and administration, of embezzlement, fraud, civil conspiracy and — in Ezeh’s case — breach of fiduciary duty.
The nonprofit said both Ezeh and Killebrew were terminated over the summer after an internal investigation.
News 8 tried to reach both women. No one answered the door at Ezeh’s Grand Rapids home, but Killebrew was eager to set the record straight. When News 8 knocked on her door on the city’s northeast side, ELNC’s former director of finance and administration vehemently denied any wrongdoing.
“That was so misconstrued,” Killebrew said, at times tearful. “I never made a direct payment to myself for anything, The invoices were submitted. They were all approved. The auditors looked at everything every single year. They knew what was going on. The board knew…”
Killebrew said ELNC hired her on a contractual basis for many years and, at times, she had to hire people herself in order to get all the work done.
“Every (invoice) I put together was for work I had done or it went to pay the people who were working for me,” she said.
ELNC functions by securing grants from different organizations, then distributing money across several partner organizations, according to court documents.
Former CEO Ezeh was accused of creating multiple groups, then using them to send money from ELNC to herself.
In 2010, Ezeh formed a group called PONA Consulting, per the complaint. And in 2022, Ezeh created a group known as the Early Years Coalition (EYC).
Then, between May and August 2022, Ezeh directed ELNC to transfer about $228,000 to EYC, which was her own organization, court documents alleged. Of that $228,000, EYC allegedly transferred $110,000 to PONA Consulting, also formed by Ezeh. The remaining $118,000 was allegedly distributed amongst Ezeh’s family and friends. According to the court documents, EYC was only operational for about six months, and it did not accomplish anything.
In August 2022, Ezeh created the Global Open Learning and Development Preschools (GOLD) to replace EYC, the documents alleged. She carried out a similar scheme with GOLD, per the complaint.
Ezeh was ultimately accused of funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars to herself, her family and her friends. ELNC lost at least $343,000 because of Ezeh’s actions, according to the complaint.
Ezeh was also accused of approving large payments to Killebrew, who was the former director of finance and administration, unbeknownst to ELNC’s board.
For instance, in December 2021, Killebrew emailed Ezeh requesting various additional payments totaling $75,000, according to the complaint. Ezeh approved the payment the next day without telling the board, the documents show.
Killebrew was accused of causing almost $313,000 in damages — at a minimum — to ELNC, per court documents.
In sum, ELNC calculated that the pair’s actions caused the nonprofit to suffer at least $656,000 in damages, on top of lost revenues and damage to ELNC’s reputation, according to the complaint.
After a whistleblower came forward in 2023, ELNC said it launched an investigation and ultimately fired Ezeh, Killebrew and others. Many other board members resigned “given the immense amount of work to be done,” per court documents.
An interim executive team was then established for ELNC — but much of the interim team, too, resigned because of “the financial mess left behind,” the complaint said. The whole financial accounting team resigned, ELNC said.
“In short, Dr. Ezeh and Killebrew’s unlawful conduct has decimated ELNC,” the nonprofit said in the complaint.
Brian Lennon, the attorney representing the nonprofit, provided the following statement to News 8 on behalf of ELNC:
“The Board has a fiduciary duty to recover the funds that have been stolen. We filed this lawsuit so we can recoup these funds. We call on our founder/former CEO and former Director of Finance to do the right thing and return the money as soon as possible.”
— News 8’s Taylor Morris and Susan Samples contributed to this report.