On federal tax documents, Florida corporation filings, and even current social media accounts, Reuben Sliva is listed as the Vice President of Operations for the Fort Myers-based If I Can Dream Foundation, a charity whose sole source of income is a government grant to provide vocational training to special needs students.
According to federal tax records from 2018, Sliva was paid $84,000 by the foundation, ostensibly for his work with the special needs community. But newspaper accounts, business records and social media posts show that while Sliva collected the lucrative charity paychecks, he spent most of his time planning, setting up, and opening a restaurant in Franklin, Tennessee.
Sliva’s role at the foundation is now under scrutiny because his paychecks are signed by Roger Lolly, the founder and president of the If I Can Dream Foundation, who is facing criticism for, among other things, loaning his own political campaign at least $100,000 while collecting an unusually high salary from his charity. Lolly paid himself more than $187,000 each of the last two years, an amount more than twice as high as similar charities doing the same work in other Florida communities.
Lolly’s foundation has only a single source of income: a contract awarded through the Florida Department of Education to provide vocational training to students with disabilities. The program’s funding comes from the federal government and a state matching grant. In 2018, the contract paid Lolly’s organization $540,000 to provide approximately 50 hours of training to 181 students. Because the funding is administered through the state, Lolly’s contract explicitly states that his organization is subject to Florida’s public records laws, which allow anyone to view emails, contracts, invoices and other businesses pertaining to the program.
But Lolly has so far refused to answer questions about the large salary paid to Sliva, who by late 2017 was already planning to open his new restaurant in Tennessee, called Franklin Soul. By January of 2018, Sliva was looking for employees. The restaurant closed less than a year after opening, and since that time, Sliva has focused his efforts on building a construction company, Tennessee business records show.
Reached by telephone on a construction site in Franklin on Thursday, Sliva claimed to have done charity work through the foundation on behalf of the state of Tennessee, but hung up the phone after being asked for details. The Capitolist was later able to independently confirmed from Tennessee’s Human Services Department that the charity provided less than $4,000 in vocational rehabilitation services to the state. The organization was approved to provide services in 2019, but is not approved to provide services in 2020 [Note: an earlier version of this story stated that calls and emails to the State of Tennessee found no evidence that the If I Can Dream Foundation provided any services to the state. A Tennessee Human Services spokesperson later provided the additional details included above]. It’s not clear how Sliva could have provided services to Florida special needs students while running a restaurant in a different state.
Tax records that might reveal Sliva’s charity salary for 2019 and 2020 are not yet available, but Sliva is still listed as the foundation’s director of operations on the charity’s website, and on several other official records.
Sliva and Lolly are also connected through Fort Myers real estate entrepreneur Randy Krise, a major donor to Lolly’s campaign for state representative. Krise is married to Sliva’s mother, who was part-owner in a previous restaurant venture in Fort Myers, the well-known Reuben’s Smokehouse, which was sold in 2016 and went out of business a short while later. It is not known if Krise also received payments from Lolly.
The foundation’s 2018 federal tax forms show that salaries paid to Lolly and Sliva totaled $274,221, but more than $336,000 was paid out in executive compensation that year. Of that, $2,800 went to Sliva’s wife, Erin Sliva, who also lives in Tennessee. It’s not clear who received the remaining $60,000 in payments.
Like Lolly and Sliva, Krise refused to respond to questions from The Capitolist about his role with the organization or any payments he may have received in the form of office rent or speaking fees. At one point Krise’s real estate business was housed in the same office building as Lolly’s foundation.
For 2020, Lolly and Sliva were awarded a $1.7 million contract approved by Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to provide vocational training to special needs students. Emails to Corcoran seeking comment about the payments to Lolly and Sliva were not immediately returned.