Adoption group is under shadow
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By Nancy Cambria
September 27, 2009 / slttoday,com
For hundreds of families around the country, the Chesterfield-based Small World Adoption Foundation enabled them to become loving adoptive parents of orphaned Russian and Eastern European children.
Those 17 years of uniting foreign children with American parents, though, may be unraveling in a wave of questions about how the group, and its founder in particular, spent its money.
Last year, a tug-of-war for control of the foundation — and oversight of its money — pitted the founder against his board. Allegations about improper spending caught the attention of state and perhaps federal authorities.
Then, two weeks ago, on Sept. 15, the founder and director, Viacheslav "Slava" Platonov, 58, was found dead in his condo in Creve Coeur. Police said it was a suicide.
Now, the future of the nonprofit group that has handled nearly 2,000 adoptions is clouded, perhaps threatening its ability to continue bringing together children and prospective parents.
Small World emerged as an important link between orphans from Eastern Europe and Russia and parents in America. It is one of just five agencies in Missouri accredited to conduct certain types of international adoptions. And its efforts have made the St. Louis area home to the nation's largest number of adoptions from Belarus.
The Missouri attorney general's office said it received complaints about financial mismanagement starting last year. Some of the complaints were so detailed that the office assumed federal agencies were investigating Small World, said Bob Carlson, an assistant attorney general based in St. Louis.
"We couldn't confirm that there was a federal investigation going on, but we thought it was likely, and we didn't want to interfere with a federal agency," he said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Jensen would not confirm or deny whether Platonov or Small World were being investigated.
But Small World's former operations director, Brenda Henn, said that she and former board members had been interviewed extensively by Jensen and an Internal Revenue Service agent.
Henn, who resigned from Small World last year, has questioned Platonov's expenses and how he handled foundation money. She laid out her complaints in reports sent to the state agency that licenses adoption agencies and a national group that accredits them.
"For 15 years, I truly believed that Small World really did amazing things. … That's really, really a gift to be doing such wonderful work," she said in an interview. "I'm sad that it wasn't everything I thought it was."
Platonov's attorney, Alexander Kourbatov, said he did not know why Platonov had killed himself. But he said allegations of financial impropriety were unfounded.
"I am not aware of any fact that would support" the contentions, he said. "This was a great man who was very energetic, and people really loved to cling to him."
FROM THE GROUND UP
Platonov was a physician in his native St. Petersburg, Russia, before emigrating in the early 1980s, retraining and becoming an anesthesiologist in Washington, Mo.
He also owned several businesses, including the former Zhivago's restaurant in Ballwin and a horse importing and training business. His wife, Yelena Kogan, owns a day spa and an online female hormone replacement consulting company.
Parents who used Platonov's foundation revered him for enabling them to adopt needy children from orphanages in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.
"Small World Adoption Foundation has changed our lives in so many ways, and for all of them, we are thankful," one parent wrote in a testimonial on the foundation's website.
In 2000, Platonov and Henn were both honored as Angels in Adoption, a program in which members of Congress recognize leaders in adoption.
Platonov built the agency from the ground up, establishing a board and a humanitarian aide arm to raise money for playgrounds and other needs for orphanages abroad. The agency charged parents $20,000 to $50,000 to handle the international adoptions of healthy children.
According to public financial statements, the agency spent about $2 million annually on adoption and related expenses in recent years.
When he established the foundation in 1992, Platonov brought in Henn to help run it. Henn was one of the first people in the St. Louis area to adopt a child from an orphanage in Hungary and had led a contingent of other area families in the area to adopt children out of the country.
Henn said it was a great partnership for years, with Platonov handling most of the adoption work abroad. She handled the office, client assessment and the paperwork and legal documentation in the United States.
The relationship between the leaders began to unravel in 2008. That's when Henn says she grew increasingly concerned about the handling of money.
She detailed her concerns in a recent interview with the Post-Dispatch, and also in a written report she sent last year to the Council on Accreditation, which accredits agencies that handle overseas adoptions, and the Missouri Children's Division.
Henn wrote in the report that Platonov routinely ignored requests to turn in receipts for expenses he put on a foundation credit card, and that an auditing firm had raised red flags about his spending on meals and entertainment.
Henn said she and another co-worker also became concerned about a company called Eastern European Assistance Group (EEAG). Henn originally believed EEAG was a money-handling company in St. Petersburg that oversaw payments to overseas agencies.
According to Small World financial records, the foundation paid EEAG more than $1.2 million total for contract work in 2003 and 2004. Those are the last years for which records were publicly available.
EEAG first registered with the Missouri secretary of state's office in August 2003 to "provide international travel assistance, accommodations, translation." Its incorporation papers were signed by Ludmilla Golubeva, Platonov's sister-in-law.
Golubeva also worked for Small World. According to the foundation's financial documents, she earned more than $237,000 from the agency in 2001, helping to arrange adoptions. She died in 2007.
While foundation records list EEAG as based in St. Petersburg state records show the company as being registered in Chesterfield — at a condo once owned jointly by Golubeva and Kogan, Platonov's wife. Platonov is now listed as the condo's owner.
Henn wrote in her report that the foundation bookkeeper grew concerned in May 2008 when she went to make a deposit at an area bank and was asked in which account the money should go: Small World or EEAG. Henn wrote that she had no knowledge of a separate bank account for EEAG and had little knowledge of the company overall.
Henn said she took her concerns to the board in the summer of 2008. She said the board, already worried about Platonov's expenses, told her they were going to close the agency and asked her to stay on to help shut it down.
But in July, Platonov sued the board for control of the foundation's assets.
In the lawsuit, Platonov alleged that the board was overspending and that a clash took place because he had tried to cut costs at Small World. Platonov also claimed the group's revenue had dropped dramatically because of "the recent and ongoing geopolitical and financial shifts in the world."
The suit was later settled out of court. As part of the agreement, the board members all resigned and were freed of any legal or financial obligations to the foundation. Platonov remained as executive director. The agreement also stipulated that neither party would say anything disparaging about the other.
Henn resigned shortly after the settlement, with three other staffers also resigning in the wake of her departure. She says she was later contacted by federal authorities and, in one meeting, was asked about several checks issued by EEAG and whether they were for legitimate Small World expenses.
Messages left with six of the foundation's former board members were not returned.
Another board member, Peter Dunne, expressed sadness at the turn of events for Small World. Dunne said Small World was in financial trouble, but that was caused by several factors, including the fall of the U.S. dollar's value.
"I didn't need an audit to tell me that we were spending more on adoptions than we were taking in," said Dunne, who has adopted three children through Small World.
Another former board member, Phil Corbin, said "there were conflicts between the board and Slava, and those conflicts couldn't be resolved and the board resigned en masse."
Kourbatov, Platonov's attorney, said that his client had no involvement with EEAG and that he would not speculate about why the company was registered to a Chesterfield property owned by his client.
Kogan, Platonov's wife, could not be reached for comment.
In addition to a new five-member board of directors, Small World has seen a nearly complete turnover in its staff, with only two out of six remaining from a year ago. They include longtime employee Dana Martin, who is now chief operating officer.
Martin dismissed the allegations of improper spending and blamed Henn, whom she described as a disgruntled former employee, for leading a smear campaign.
She said that Small World had never been contacted by federal authorities and that the foundation was "mourning the loss of a good friend." Martin also said the agency intended to continue handling adoptions, with Platonov's wife taking on a larger role.
Later, in a written statement, Martin added that Small World was in good standing with the state Department of Social Services and its Children's Division.
She said the foundation had previously used EEAG to arrange "interpreters, drivers, escorts, and assistance with government agencies and court appearances. (Small World) is not aware of any inappropriate spending by EEAG."
This summer, Martin sent a letter to clients and donors acknowledging the past disputes and making a plea for new donations.
"As a result of the legal challenges that SWAF had to endure over the past 10 months in efforts to put the past behind us, our cash reserves have been weakened," Martin wrote. "We have overcome such challenges through positive attitudes, hard work, and sincere commitment toward our mission of bringing home children from Russia and Ukraine."