Program founder quits after admitting relationships with parolees


by By CHERYL HALL / The Dallas Morning News

Posted on October 15, 2009 at 2:08 PM

Updated Monday, Oct 19 at 6:12 PM

HOUSTON - Catherine Rohr, founder of the Houston-based Prison Entrepreneurship Program, has resigned as chief executive of the nonprofit. She has also been banned from Texas prisons and from working with parolees after divulging that she had inappropriate relationships with PEP graduates.

Since founding PEP in 2004, Rohr, 32, is credited with building a statewide prison organization that has graduated 500 felons from a five-month program about how to start businesses and be gainfully employed.

She and PEP were featured in a Cheryl Hall column on Oct. 4. The organization has an office in Dallas.

In a letter e-mailed Tuesday night to 7,500 supporters, Rohr said she sought "emotional comfort" from several released PEP graduates after her divorce in December. She said she decided to publicly disclose her improprieties so PEP could move forward.

"Although these mistakes were not illegal, I was recently banned by the Texas prison system from re-entering prison and volunteering with released men on parole supervision," she wrote.

In an interview Wednesday, Bill Meyer, chairman of PEP and chief financial officer of San Jose, Calif.-based Bell Micro Inc., said Rohr disclosed her inappropriate relationships to the PEP board a month ago. He said the board learned of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice decision to ban her from future prison work last week.

"The organization is focused on continuing our unique mission of stimulating positive life transformation for executives and inmates," Meyer said. "We are currently in discussions with Catherine and the TDCJ about her future role."

TDCJ public information officer Jason Clark said the agency is "deeply saddened and concerned by Ms. Rohr's disclosure" but took action because inappropriate relationships "compromise the safety of the volunteers, staff and the overall security of the facility."

He said the agency hopes to work with PEP's board but "cannot allow her continued involvement in the program."

Phi Tran, the organization's chief operating officer, has been named acting CEO while the board conducts a nationwide search for Rohr's replacement.

Jim Yadgir, a commodities trader in Chicago and a major contributor to PEP, said that he has pledged $200,000 to the organization but that it is contingent on Rohr's continued involvement in some capacity. "My pledge stays if Catherine Rohr stays. My pledge goes if Catherine Rohr goes. That's as simply as I can put it.

"The fact is there are 500 or more guys out there who are now willing to carry your groceries to the car rather than steal them, thanks to her."