Rumors swirl around Ma Otis Food Pantry closing

Speculation sparks an investigation by the state's Attorney General's Office

By Gerald Rogovin

A criminal investigation by the office of the state Attorney General into the finances of a food pantry at the Massachusetts Military Reservation in Buzzards Bay has cast a cloud over the efforts of hard-working volunteers and community agencies to feed needy families in the region.

Distribution of food to Cape Codders by food pantries and food banks, shelters and soup kitchens reported just a week ago by CapeCodToday.com included the disclosure that the Ma Otis Food Pantry at Air Station Cape Cod had been closed. Michelle Atlak, its president, had told CapeCodToday.com that, because of a technicality, the pantry had to vacate a building on the base.

But, according to a complaint filed with the Attorney General, another Ma Otis officer had questioned the organization's handling of its finances, and asked the AG to investigate. The food pantry's closing forced the Otis Attic, a thrift shop located on the base, also to close. It also was serving military families. 

"It's such a crying shame. This hurts everyone on the base and all the pantries on Cape Cod." - Name WithheldThe two organizations served about 35 families of military personnel living on the Cape and Islands. Atlak had earlier told CapeCodToday.com that the food pantry served 200 families. Since the closing, food pantries in Sandwich and Pocasset have taken over the task of providing food to the families.  

Food banks and pantries, soup kitchens and shelters had been reporting tightened supplies of food and a 23 percent increase in the number of families in need in the region before Thanksgiving.  

Successful fund-raisers for the Ma Otis Food Pantry had raised an estimated $25,000 earlier this year. They were conducted by the Barnstable County Sheriff's Office, Cape Country 104, Sandwich Taverna restaurant, a Harley Davidson motorcycle club on the Cape and a group of golfers who play on the military reservation course.  

The complaint alleged that the defunct food pantry has a savings account of $15,000, maintains no inventory currently and has no records of food purchases.  

Ma Otis had as its goal the assistance of any military member or military family "in need of emergency food supplies, regardless of branch of service, rank or circumstances," it advised Country 104, a Hyannis radio station. 

In its 29 months of existence, from 2009 through last October, Ma Otis had frequently raised questions among organizations on the military reservation about its finances, according to the complaint. Atlak and Paula Bennett, her mother and the organization's treasurer, had not been willing to show the pantry's books to other officers or the board of directors. 

Two questionable transactions totaling $1,100.00 following Tropical Storm Irene prompted the complaint to the state AG's office. "The shelves were bare, and the $1,100 was gone, a Ma Otis director told CapeCodToday.com."No one was able, or willing, to say what was happening." A spouses group on the military reservation that voted last July to be part of an umbrella organization of the food pantry to support it, demanded an explanation. Bennett would not comply, the complaint alleged.

After initiating an internal investigation of the situation, the Coast Guard Command on the base ordered Ma Otis to cease operations and vacate the building until the investigation is completed. 

The pantry's infighting could not be contained, according to Roy Lyons, public information officer for the Sheriff's office and the Barnstable County Correctional Facility. "We were neighbors on the base," he said. "It's hard to keep a secret in the community."   

"There have been tons of rumors about them, none of them good."  - Michelle DeSilvaMembers of the St. George Greek Orthodox Church of Cape Cod in Centerville, who had been supporting nine families through the food pantry, also became aware of Ma Otis's difficulties. An e-mail shared with CapeCodToday.com stated,

"All financial records (of the pantry) have been turned over to the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office due to what appears to be a misuse of funds and donations by the president and the treasurer. If anyone asks you to donate, it (Ma Otis) no longer exists. I was recently told they are still working from their cars..." 

When Ma Otis Pantry closed last October, it notified its client families that "Cape Cod Cares for Our Troops will also be available if help is needed." Michelle DeSilva, who with her son Dylan, operates the Brewster food pantry for GIs in Iraq and Afghanistan, described that message as "news to me”.  

"We worked with them when they got started, buying canned goods to stock their shelves. But we haven't been involved  for months," DeSilva said. "There have been tons of rumors about them, none of them good."  

Cape Cod Cares for Our Troops was established seven years ago by Dylan DeSilva when he was 12-years-old. Last weekend, more than 400 volunteers packed 1,800 Christmas care packages at the DeSilva home on Long Pond Road for shipment to GIs overseas.

Several members of the military reservation's spouses group, expressed concern to CapeCodToday.com because Atlak and Bennett have continued to seek donations after the Coast Guard command told them to stop. "It's such a crying shame. This hurts everyone on the base and all the pantries on Cape Cod," said one who asked not to be identified. "They're a 501c(3) charitable organization, so they are violating the law when they keep asking for money."

CapeCodToday.com welcomes thoughtful comments and the varied opinions of our readers. We are in no way obligated to post or allow comments that our moderators deem inappropriate. We reserve the right to delete comments we perceive as profane, vulgar, threatening, offensive, racially-biased, homophobic, slanderous, hateful or just plain rude. Commenters may not attack or insult other commenters, readers or writers. Commenters who persist in posting inappropriate comments will be banned from commenting on CapeCodToday.com.