Spokane County Tries To Find Easy Money Conservationist Investigated Over Missing $71,500 In Grant Money
The public dished out $71,500 to a citizens group in 1995 that wanted to improve access to the scenic outlet of the Little Spokane River.
The state and county grant money was supposed to be used to kill weeds, plant native shrubs, publish a handbook, improve trails and install permanent signs.
Now, nearly two years after the checks were issued, authorities and leaders of the group are wondering where all the money went.
The weeds are still there, the new plants are dead, the signs aren’t up and the only publication appears to be a $25 wildlife book that’s being sold by an activist named Easy who managed the grant project.
Interviews and a review of public records also show evidence of double-billing and reimbursement for bills from vendors who say they didn’t do any work and weren’t paid.
In one case, Easy submitted records to Spokane County that show graphic artist Donna Lange did $15,920 worth of work on the project in 1995.
“I wish I’d been paid that,” Lange said last week. “I just provided him with some estimates and never actually did any work for him.”
The records also show that Easy may have violated terms of the grant by collecting 20 percent of the grant for administration costs and charging $40 an hour consulting fees.
This month, Spokane County turned over an internal audit of the project to sheriff’s detectives, who are conducting a criminal investigation.
Because of that investigation, county officials who supervised and audited the grant refused comment.
Easy also wouldn’t talk about the project. “I’m just not interested in making any comment,” said Easy, who lives at 116 E. 40th, where his front lawn has been replaced with a wildflower garden.
The 47-year-old activist who legally changed his name from Brian Donald Dumont - has been involved in several environmental and conservation groups, and has worked with organizations supporting the Centennial Trail and the Hangman Creek and Spokane River watersheds.
The state Department of Natural Resources awarded a $65,000 grant to Spokane County to pay for work done by the Little Spokane Natural Area Citizens Advisory Board. Spokane County contributed another $6,500.
Including donations to the project listed by Easy, the total cost approached $94,000.
Easy was on the citizens advisory board. He took charge of the project and submitted bills to Spokane County, which handed out the grant money, the board president and two other members say.
Those three say Easy has refused their requests to look at the grant records even though their names are on the state grant.
Board president Kevin Canwell and members Lynn Wells and John Stuchell say they began asking questions in the fall of 1995 about where the money was going, but were stonewalled by Easy and county officials.
“He told us to put our questions in writing, and we haven’t seen him at one of our meetings since then,” Canwell said.
“Our questions are still unanswered,” he said, “and we’re not happy.”
County parks director Wyn Birkenthal refused to discuss the grant, which he supervised.
Birkenthal’s boss, Francine Boxer, said the county had mishandled the matter.
“There’s a lot of money that’s obviously not accounted for here,” said Boxer, the county’s assistant chief administrative officer. “I think it should have been addressed long ago. The citizens on that board have a right to be angry.”
As chairman of the Little Spokane board, Canwell eventually reviewed bills submitted by Easy to Spokane County and forwarded to the state Department of Natural Resources.
“Even with my simple math skills, I can’t account for about $40,000,” said Canwell.
Stuchell said he became suspicious when he saw records indicating a prison work crew he supervised did $2,940 worth of project work that was listed as a donation.
“We didn’t send them a bill and that’s not our rate,” said Stuchell, a state employee who supervises prison crews.
“My concern about this is that our citizens group has no documentation whatsoever about where this money went,” he said.
Some work was done at the natural area. A field was mowed and sprayed with pesticide, and debris was removed. Some trail work also was completed.
DNR assigned its aquatic lands manager, Mike Ramsey of Olympia, to monitor the Little Spokane grant.
“It was made clear at a meeting with all parties on April 25, 1995, that Spokane County was responsible for managing the project and maintaining billing records,” Ramsey said in a letter last week to his boss, Ron Teissere.
The DNR awards the grants under the Aquatic Lands Enhancement Act, which redistributes money from the leases of public waterways in the state.
The money is suppose to be used to improve public access to waterways, including the Little Spokane River.
Some of the Spokane grant money apparently went for posters and the unauthorized installation of raptor-nest poles, which were ordered removed by state parks rangers.
Rick Woodbury, who owns Integrated Composition Systems, said he did preprinting work for Easy, but not the $12,316 listed in the grant records.
“That’s not correct,” Woodbury said. “For the Little Spokane, we did maybe $5,000 worth of work at the most.”
The first questions about the grant surfaced within weeks of the intended conclusion of the project in the summer of 1995.
Canwell reported irregularities in the fall of 1995 to county parks director Birkenthal.
When questions persisted, Spokane County finally ordered an internal audit in March 1996.
“There are some large irregularities, such as apparent double billings and failure to produced items required by the grant,” Canwell said in a March 1996 letter to Birkenthal.
The matter seemed dead until two weeks ago, when The Spokesman-Review requested copies of grant documents and the county’s internal audit.
“We are under the opinion that the county was trying to sweep this whole thing under the carpet, hoping it would just go away,” Canwell said last week.
Deputy Auditor Vicky Dalton submitted the audit to the county prosecutor’s office on March 20.
Deputy Prosecutor Martin Muench immediately forwarded the audit to the sheriff’s department for a criminal investigation.
Dalton and her boss, Auditor Bill Donahue, refused to release a copy of the internal audit.
“I can’t comment because a criminal investigation is now under way,” Dalton said.
“We identified possible noncompliance with financial requirements of the grant and county policies,” Donahue said. “That’s why we have turned it over to the prosecutor’s office.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (1 color) Graphic: Where did the money go?
MEMO: See related story under the headline: Several different facets to the man named Easy
See related story under the headline: Several different facets to the man named Easy