FIRST ON 3: Arrest of 'A Better Tomorrow' CEO raises new questio - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

FIRST ON 3: Arrest of 'A Better Tomorrow' CEO raises new questions

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CHATTANOOGA, TN (WRCB) - UPDATE: The city is searching for ways to ensure young men connected to violence will receive outreach services after the director of a nonprofit spearheading those efforts was arrested over the weekend.

Richard Bennett, CEO of A Better Tomorrow, was arrested Friday night and charged with two counts of possession of a controlled substance and one count of violating open container laws.

Police said they found Bennett with a woman in a parked minivan in East Lake Park. Inside, they found hydrocodone pills without a prescription, alcohol and marijuana.

On Monday afternoon, it was announced that the city's public safety coordinator, Paul Smith, would now connect young men enrolled in the initiative who are seeking help.

Since the initiative kicked off with the first call-in meeting on March 20, many of the young men -- as well as their friends and family -- have called during early hours of the morning to late at night seeking resources. Bennett and his staff had answered hundreds of calls and helped connect them to other nonprofits.

City officials say those resources are still available.

"Paul and the VRI team are in the process of reaching out to all those who have called the number to provide them with these details and answer any questions they might have," said Lacie Stone, spokeswoman for the mayor's office. "We will continue to work with the existing organizations and agencies already providing VRI services to ensure all participants' needs continue to be met."

Councilman Moses Freeman said he was disappointed to hear of Bennett's arrest. He and other council members are reviewing the city's proposed FY2015 budget.

Before the arrest, Bennett was poised to enter into a one-year contract after responding to a publicly posted request for an organization to serve as a case manager for the city's initiative.

With Bennett taking on a larger case load, he was asking for $329,100, according to a 14-page bid. That contract was still pending council approval.

"Richard had done a lot to turn around his own life and pretend to be in a very positive position to help the VRI program," Moses said.

Now, the city has plans to re-release the request for funds to find another non-profit.

"I'm sure there are other organizations and individuals in the community who can provide similar services," Freeman said. "We're going to ask the mayor: 'Are there other options?' And my guess is there are other options that will be just as viable to carry on the work of VRI."

Even Bennett's attorney, Gerald Webb, said he wasn't sure of his client's future with the city.

"Now someone who has been able to is able to reach the people that the city is trying to reach is not in a position to do that right now," Webb said.

 But he said there's more to the arrest than what's in the police report. Police were looking for the van in the East Lake area after someone said they saw a minivan erratically driving all over the roadway.

"You have an open container but no DUI charge, no field sobriety," he said. "Sometimes facts can sound really bad until you get into court and you have a real understanding as to what happened."

Webb said Bennett has a prescription for the hydrocodone pills found in the car but didn't have it on him at the time of the arrest. And as for the gram of marijuana, he said Bennett is taking a drug test to prove he's clean.

"Hopefully we get the cases resolved so that he can still be a part of the mayor's initiative but if not, he'll continue to do what he's doing. He's not going to stop speaking out about youth and young people and doing everything they can to make sure they have a bright future," Webb said.

Webb said the most pressing concern is getting the charges behind Bennett.

Meanwhile, city leaders weigh options about the future of VRI.

"Well I think we just continue to do business as usual. I don't think this has done anything to hurt the program, in and of itself," Freeman said.

Bennett is due in court July 1. He's also running for the District 5 School Board seat on the August ballot.

The city council's second hearing of the budget is set for Tuesday, June 10.

PREVIOUS STORY: The CEO of a local non-profit, who was expected to enter into a contract with the city as part of the mayor’s Violence Reduction Initiative, was arrested Friday night.

Richard Bennett, 48, faces two counts of possession of a controlled substance and one count of violating open container law after Chattanooga police reportedly found him sitting in a minivan in East Lake with his pants unzipped and a woman accompanying him.

Bennett is the CEO and founder of A Better Tomorrow. He has also picked up qualifying papers to run in the county’s district 5 school board race.

READ MORE | Local non-profit waits as Chattanooga budget decided

Bennett submitted a request to receive $329,100 from the city in hopes of getting a one year contract.

That deal will be reevaluated, a spokeswoman for the mayor said.

"We will not tolerate criminal activity from anyone in our community – whether they are associated with a city initiative or not,” said Lacie Stone, spokeswoman for Mayor Andy Berke. “We are extremely disappointed in Mr. Bennett's actions and have halted his involvement with Chattanooga Violence Reduction Initiative (VRI).”

Bennett’s private non-profit, which helps provide life skills to at-risk youth, has so far served as the gatekeeper for services to the 25 young men selected in the first round of the Violence Reduction Initiative after a March 20 call-in.

Stone said whether Bennett's organization gets a contract with the city or not, the needs of the participants will continue to be met.

“We will continue to meet the day-to-day needs of those who have reached out for help through our existing partnerships with other agencies,” she said. “The success of the Chattanooga Violence Reduction Initiative is dependent on our entire community putting an end to violence -- not one person or one agency."

Bennett told police he was meeting the woman to get information for the city’s Violence Reduction Initiative. The woman told police she met Bennett to ask for money.

Police were looking for the minivan after they received reports of the vehicle “driving erratically around 3400 E. 36th Street by East Lake Court,” according to an affidavit of complaint.

Officers located the van in the southeast corner of the park. Inside the van were two open Budweiser beers and an open bottle of Patron.

Officers report that Bennett smelled of alcohol when they approached him. Officers also found a small bag of weed in Bennett’s vehicle and a couple of hydrocodone pills in a container on his key chain.

Bennett, who began his non-profit 16 years ago, was the only non-profit to submit a proposal to the city after they publicly posted a request for an organization to help administer services to participants in the Violence Reduction Initiative.

Bennett, who has not received any funding from the city or entered into any formal agreement, had been helping provide services since early this year.

He did not respond to a text message by Channel 3 seeking comment Saturday afternoon.

Bennett posted a $2,500 bond. He is expected to appear in court July 1 before Hamilton County Sessions Court Judge Christine Sell.
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