What is expected to be a two-week trial of Mary Holden Ayala, the former executive director of the now-defunct Portland foster care agency Give Us This Day, began Jan. 29 in U.S. District Court in Portland.
The first witness called by federal prosecutors: former Sen. Margaret Carter (D-Portland), a longtime Give Us This Day board member.
Holden Ayala is charged with nearly $1 million in federal and state funds meant for the benefit of foster children in her care and spending the money instead to fund a lavish lifestyle, mortgage payments and a home renovation.
In 2015, former Give Us This Day employees told WW of squalid conditions, neglected children and their own bounced paychecks, all while Holden Ayala jetted to the Caribbean, Las Vegas and shopped at Louis Vuitton, Michael Kors, and Nordstrom.
Holden Ayala failed to file the tax returns required of non-profits for years, was the subject of numerous complaints, and even had her agency's payments from the state Department of Human Services garnished because of her financial difficulties. Despite that, Give Us This Day continued to operate until shortly after WW's story.
There were at least two reasons for its continued operations despite numerous red flags: Give Us This Day accepted and served the some of the most challenging children and it was the largest black-run foster care agency in Oregon.
The other reason: the advocacy of a powerful then-lawmaker. Carter, now 83, was the first black woman elected to the Oregon Legislature and served in the Capitol for 24 years.
From 2001 to 2009, she served in the Senate, representing North and Northeast Portland and established a reputation as the go-to member of the Joint Ways and Means Committee for the Department of Human Services budget.
During her years in the Senate, Carter testified yesterday, she also served as a board member of Give Us This Day, resigned only in 2009 when she left the Legislature to become deputy director of the Oregon Department of Human Services, the agency that provide Give Us This Day its funding—about $1.6 million a year in its last three years of operation.
Although as a board member of Give Us This Day, a 501(c)3 non-profit, Carter would have been responsible for the organization's legal and financial health.
But Carter said that because of her legislative commitments, she rarely if ever attended official board meetings, never saw Give Us This Day's board agenda, budget or financial reports and had no idea what Holden Ayala's salary was.
"I was a non-traditional board member," Carter testified.
Her role was to take calls from Holden Ayala and to meet with DHS officials when they were not paying Give Us This Day as quickly as the organization desired.
"I was there to help with issues like that," Carter said, "and to make contact with the department—later I worked for that department."
As WW reported earlier, Give Us This Day was in perennial battles with the DHS over money.
"The reason we have so many problems is we don't get paid," Holden Ayala told WW in 2015. "We are just people who don't get paid."
But records showed that a DHS official told a Portland fire inspector who'd come to look at one of Give Us This Day's facilities that he'd advocated for Give Us This Day to be shut down but "has been unsuccessful due to 'political' reasons."
Carter, the organization's political patron, testified yesterday that she left the Give Us This Day board in 2009, when she became deputy director of DHS. Staying on, she said, "would have been a conflict of interest."