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Fraud trial of ex-courts figure starts

Rhonda Richardson treated the CASA bank account like it was “her personal piggy bank,” federal prosecutors said in court Monday.

As the federal trial for the former executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates began Monday in Coeur d’Alene, Richardson’s attorney argued she didn’t intentionally commit fraud by spending money from the nonprofit’s coffers.

Federal Defender Kathleen Moran told jurors that the organization, whose volunteers represent abused and neglected children in court, was mismanaged at several levels. Witnesses in the case will testify that the 1st Judicial District’s CASA program operated without a treasurer, Moran said, that its board of directors sometimes met without a quorum.

Richardson, formerly known as Rhonda Naylor, was indicted by a federal grand jury in April for allegedly stealing from CASA during a 10-month period from September 2003 to June 2004. The 50-year-old woman is charged with 18 felony counts of wire fraud and another felony for lying to an FBI agent.

Though she’s only charged with stealing about $2,400, an audit of CASA funds revealed about $60,000 missing or mismanaged on Richardson’s watch.

Assistant U.S. Attorney George Breitsameter told jurors that witnesses would testify to CASA’s policies requiring double signatures on all checks and purchase orders – and how Richardson allegedly circumvented those controls by using a debit card without approval.

Breitsameter said Richardson resigned from CASA on April 21, 2004, but continued to use the organization’s debit card two months after leaving.

She’s accused of using the card at Nordstrom to buy shoes and clothing, in one instance, and buying souvenirs for her children and grandchildren at a Chicago restaurant.

Several purchases were made in the Portland area, where Richardson’s relatives live, Breitsameter said.

The charge of lying to an FBI agent stems from an August 2006 interview with FBI Agent Kevin Dunton, Breitsameter said. Richardson’s accused of buying $220 worth of clothing for herself with CASA funds, then lying and telling Dunton she bought them for a young child.

Moran told jurors that Richardson “gave her heart and soul to the organization” and was excited when she became executive director.

A fund-raising auction in 2004 was the real beginning of problems for CASA, Moran said. Witnesses this week will testify money from the auction was lost and unaccounted for, Moran said, and that it was because of the failure of CASA board members.

“The organization had some major problems,” Moran said.

She said minutes from board meetings, to be introduced at trial, will show exactly what happened in the months Richardson was executive director.

The trial continues this morning at the Federal Courthouse in Coeur d’Alene.

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