April 12, 2008 in City

Meals on Wheels probe nearly done

Meghann M. Cuniff Staff writer
 

Police are near the end of an investigation into whether Meals on Wheels employees embezzled money from the organization dedicated to serving seniors and people with disabilities.

The board of directors for Mid-City Concerns’ Meals on Wheels program submitted an audit to police in early 2006, showing extensive financial irregularities that members suspect resulted from embezzlement by at least one employee, said Paul Bodin, president of the board of directors.

Spokane police Detective Scott Anderson plans to recommend charges soon, he said this week. That will be done in a report to the county prosecutor’s office.

“I’ve already talked to the prosecutor about it,” Anderson said. “It’s just a matter of packing it up and putting it together.”

His investigation focuses on two employees, whom he would not identify, and tens of thousands of dollars in missing money.

An employee told the board about the possible embezzlement in late 2006, said Bodin, who joined the board of directors about that time.

After an audit by an outside accountant showed financial discrepancies in the charity’s books, the board placed Executive Director Cheri Mataya-Muncton on unpaid administrative leave. She resigned in early 2007.

The new executive director, Mollie Dalpae, replaced 90 percent of the organization’s small staff, and no financial problems have since arisen, Bodin said.

The board implemented new policies, including one that mandates two employees receive and count donations and that another employee makes a deposit. Also, the charity no longer uses credit cards, which Bodin said appeared to have been misused before Dalpae took over. Items purchased with the charity’s cards couldn’t be located in inventory, he said.

“We feel like we’ve moved past the problems and the agency really is financially healthy,” he said. “We’re confident that if someone should attempt the same type of thing, we would quickly become aware of it.”

Anderson said embezzlement at Mid-City Concerns appears to have gone on for several years. Bodin said the board acted as soon as it could.

“I think it’s important to realize that the agency has to act with some discretion because a suit for defamation would be devastating,” Bodin said.

A church pastor, Bodin said he has served on boards for nonprofits for more than 30 years. Theft and embezzlement cases seem to happen “with dismaying frequency” at charities, he said.

“The board members are certainly well-meaning people who have more concern for making sure the population is served than they really have awareness for legalities and technicalities,” he said. “We’re paying a lot more attention to it now than I think the board did before.”

Regionally, other cases similar to the Meals on Wheels case have popped up in the past couple of years.

In November, a jury found the former director of the North Idaho’s Court Appointed Special Advocates, Rhonda L. Naylor, also known as Rhonda Richardson, guilty of federal charges of wire fraud and lying to an FBI agent after she used CASA funds for her own benefit and then lied to an investigator. Formal charges alleged more than $2,000 was missing from the charity; charity officials say an audit showed the discrepancies totaled about $60,0000. Her sentencing is scheduled for April 28.

Also in Coeur d’Alene, a former treasurer for an elementary school parent-teacher organization pleaded guilty in late March to felony grand theft following reports of more than $23,000 missing from the Ramsey Elementary School PTO’s coffers in January 2006.

Kristine M. Gardner, now of Liberty Lake, will pay the PTO more than $10,000 in restitution, according to a March 27 plea agreement filed in Kootenai County District Court. Her sentencing is scheduled for May 13.

And in Post Falls, a judge sentenced James A. Harris to four years supervised probation and 700 hours of community service in January 2007 after he admitted to stealing about $30,000 from the Post Falls Little League for which he served as treasurer.

“This is the vulnerability of the nonprofit sector,” Bodin said. “It’s a feel-good kind of thing, so there’s always this huge sense of betrayal when something untoward happens.”

Mid-City Concerns’ Meals on Wheels is not connected to Spokane Valley Meals on Wheels, which has its own board and operates independently. In an e-mail to media organizations about the embezzlement rumors, Spokane Valley Meals on Wheels Executive Director Pam Almeida called theft from the organization “reprehensible.”

“Embezzling from a charity such as MidCity Concerns literally is stealing food from the mouths of some of our most vulnerable neighbors,” Almeida wrote.

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