Two former employees of a Spokane nonprofit dedicated to feeding low-income residents used more than $80,000 in donations to pay for booze-soaked lunches, Victoria’s Secret shopping sprees, video rentals, computer equipment, home upgrades, furniture and a Florida vacation, investigators have discovered.
Cheri Mataya-Muncton, 42, and Rachelle Solomon, 38, also tried keeping their co-workers at Mid-City Concerns’ Meals on Wheels quiet with cash bonuses and yearlong tanning salon memberships, but at least three told their stories to police.
Now each woman faces one count of first-degree theft. Charging papers were filed this week in Spokane County Superior Court.
The statements of 12 former and current employees and board members and one independent auditor show widespread and sometimes blatant misuse of money meant to fund an organization that Mataya-Muncton often painted as financially strapped during her more than nine years as director, according to previously published reports. One former employee told Spokane police Detective Scott Anderson she saw the two take donated food home.
“It’s unthinkable to most people,” said Paul Bodin, a pastor and president of the Meals on Wheels board of directors. “You wonder how the people who kind of slide into doing this justify doing it, because they can’t see themselves in the same light we see them.”
Bodin joined the board weeks before Mataya-Muncton was placed on administrative leave in December 2006. She quit shortly after that. She didn’t return a phone call or e-mail seeking comment for this article. Solomon didn’t return an e-mail.
Board member Nicole Tedrow told police that Mataya-Muncton sent e-mails to board members apologizing for making bad decisions, and that Spokane attorney Bevan Maxey called the organization in December 2006 and said his client would rather repay the stolen money than go to jail. Maxey wasn’t available for comment Wednesday.
Bodin said the board was pleased to see charges filed.
“We’ve been vigorously pursuing regress through law enforcement for more than a year now, and it’s gratifying to see it finally result in charges,” he said.
An audit conducted by accountant Marie Rice, of Heiskell, MacGillivray and Associates, traced about $81,000 of the charity’s money to Mataya-Muncton and Solomon through questionable credit card receipts, pre-tax payroll deductions and cashed checks.
Mollie Dalpae took over as executive director in early 2007 and replaced 90 percent of the organization’s staff. Bodin said the board changed its financial oversight procedures.
Mataya-Muncton had been the sole overseer of the organization’s financial records. She often failed to check with the board on expenditures or get another signature on checks, according to the police report.
Board members now review cashed checks and bank statements each month, Bodin said, and they know how much money the organization should have. They caught a missing deposit earlier this year; the secretary responsible returned the money and was fired, Bodin said.
Such thefts occur at nonprofits more often than people might suspect, Bodin said. In the past few years, similar cases in the Inland Northwest have occurred at an elementary school parent-teacher organization, a children’s baseball program and a group dedicated to representing abused children in court.
“There’s a very high level of trust usually in these agencies, and they’re ripe for victimization by people who will take advantage of that trust,” he said.
Board members of nonprofits are rarely selected for their business skills, Bodin said.
“They’re chosen because they have their hearts in the right places,” he said. “If the financial reports are a little hard to understand and the person who presents the financial report is a good talker, then the board tends to say, ‘OK, we’ll go along with that because we know and trust you.’
“Who would rob from these poor people we’re trying to serve?” he continued. “Boards just don’t look for that kind of thing, because they expect everyone to share their convictions.”
While employees admitted to accepting cash bonuses while the women’s alleged crimes took place, some saved questionable receipts and financial documents. Several said that, before the thefts came to light, they feared retribution if they spoke out.
Former program coordinator Ken Smith saved receipts and told police he’d seen Mataya-Muncton and Solomon use Meals on Wheels money to pay for gas, jewelry repairs, and dinners and lunches that included alcohol, as well as take payroll advances they never repaid. Other receipts recovered from a filing cabinet showed purchases of furniture, video rentals and tanning salon visits, according to court documents.
In October 2006, Mataya-Muncton told the board Solomon had ordered a personal cell phone using organization funds without permission, then racked up a bill of about $1,500, according to Tedrow’s statement to police.
But Tedrow also told police they later learned Mataya-Muncton hadn’t fired Solomon, she’d laid her off, which made her eligible for unemployment benefits. That led to the board’s investigation, former member Erin Gurtel told police.
The board learned of the women’s trip to Florida after talking with employees. Former employee Debbie Thoreson said she’d received an extra $1,500 after overhearing Mataya-Muncton discuss cashing a $2,900 Meals on Wheels check while on the trip.
“She felt (the bonus) was to keep quiet (in) reference the Florida trip,” according to court papers. “She will testify defendant Mataya-Muncton called from Florida saying they had found more money and put this in her account as a bonus.”
Three other employees told similar stories of extra cash showing up in their accounts after they’d noticed suspicious behavior.
Bodin hopes other nonprofits realize the importance of strict financial oversight.
“The ideal thing would be if all nonprofit boards would learn from the sad experiences of those who are victimized,” he said. “In most cases, they don’t learn until they’re burned.”