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LIGHTNING EDITORIAL: Opp House winddown calls for strict oversight

The Opportunity House, led by a president-chairman of questionable management ability and a board made up of two allies, has now voted to dissolve itself.

While it’s tempting to say good riddance to this ongoing farce, there’s way too much at stake to stand idly by as the winddown plays out.

Somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million could be generated by the sale of the assets, mainly the 19,800-square-foot building on two acres of prime commercial property the Opp House has occupied since 1982. (The property is valued on the tax books at $1,897,800.) Fortunately, the Community Foundation of Henderson County has acted on behalf of the public to protect the rights of the community and in particular the governing leaders, volunteers and paying members who built the senior center from its inception in 1958. That is the first thing to remember when authorities monitor how the proceeds from liquidating the assets are disbursed: Henderson County residents conceived, created, built and sustained the Opp House for decades before the current leaders steered it into the ditch. Any cash from the sale of the building ought to directly benefit the people of Henderson County.
Again, thanks in part to the Community Foundation, there is a legal process in place to monitor the sale, track the cash and ensure that no mischief channels the money into the pockets of Opp House insiders and their associates.
After the Opp House board voted to dissolve, the case landed once again in the courtroom of Chief Resident Superior Court Judge Peter Knight. Knight has presided over the case since the Community Foundation first filed a lawsuit in December 2018 asking the court to determine whether the Opportunity House was still operating as a nonprofit agency. Now on its third lawyer, the Opportunity House has spent three and a half years avoiding a trial. The dominoes began to fall in March, when Knight denied the Opportunity House’s second motion to dismiss the lawsuit. In June, the board voted to dissolve. In July, Henderson County’s tax administrator revoked the Opp House’s nonprofit status and initiated the process of collecting five years of back taxes, bolstering the foundation’s assertion that the former senior center is no longer operating as a nonprofit. On July 22, Knight appointed a receiver to guide the winddown of the agency and disbursement of its assets.
It's encouraging that the judge has acted quickly and decisively. Absent so far is any evidence that the state’s attorney general, Josh Stein, will ensure that the public interest is protected as the case winds down. Stein has been a sleepy constable on the beat up to now; he ought to treat the winddown as a five-alarm fire. Along with Judge Knight, he should ensure, too, that the last chapter unfolds in openness and transparency.
The Community Foundation’s Board of Directors, its president, McCray Benson, and its attorney, Steve Grabenstein, have identified bad outcomes to watch for, starting with the Opp House’s vindictive “board directive” that would convey cash from sale of the real property to an Asheville housing agency that has no presence in Henderson County.
“First and foremost, we have asked that the receiver and the Court ensure that the proceeds from the sale of OH’s property be disbursed to non-profits in Henderson County,” Grabenstein told the Lightning. The attorney emphasizes that the foundation has never asked for nor does it seek now to own the property or receive the proceeds from a sale. “There are plenty of viable non-profits in Henderson County which would benefit from a portion of the proceeds from the sale of OH’s assets,” he said. “Second, we are asking that the creditors’ claims from OH insiders be closely scrutinized and analyzed by the receiver, the AG and the Court.”
This last point cannot be underscored enough, and that’s where the four monitors should laser-focus their sights. Although the phrase has been hijacked by Make Trump Rich Again Inc., it’s appropriate to rehabilitate it here. Stop the steal ought to be Job No. 1 for Judge Knight, attorney Grabenstein, receiver John Noor and Attorney General Stein.