February 16, 2013 in City

Death tied to probe at nonprofit

Employee left note admitting theft, Skils’kin CEO says
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Police are investigating the death of a woman suspected of embezzling $500,000 from a Spokane nonprofit that links people with developmental disabilities to employers.

The apparent suicide of Shannon Patterson has shaken the organization, Skils’kin, amid investigations and audits of its finances, and has prompted grief among its employees and clients.

“This is a tragic loss of life,” Brian Behler, the chief executive officer of Skils’kin, said Friday.

“I wish she would have come into the office and said ‘Brian, I’ve made a terrible mistake. I’ve been stealing money.’ It didn’t have to come to this.”

The problems will not deter Skils’kin from its mission of providing a financial firewall for its 1,000 clients. The organization collects the monthly Social Security checks for its clients, Behler said, and manages the money on their behalf to ensure they don’t fall prey to scammers or reckless spending.

While the stolen money belonged to clients, the thefts did not affect operations as Skils’kin moved quickly to replace the losses with its own cash reserves, Behler said.

The organization has tended its financial relationship with adults with disabilities since its inception 44 years ago. And it has provided its clients with basic employment and – to a large and more important degree – lives of independence, Behler said.

Patterson, who was 31, joined Skils’kin in 2001 as a records clerk. By 2010 she had risen to program director in charge of day-to-day operations. In this position she had permission to access the nonprofit’s bank account at Washington Trust.

When Behler was hired as CEO in 2011, he put a series of new rules into place that segregated program management from financial access. Skils’kin, which collects about $14 million in annual revenues, is audited each year by outside accountants and often undergoes federal audits.

This month, these new business controls detected problems: Checks of sizable sums were being denied payment.

Fraud was suspected, and Skils’kin’s financial officers began an inquiry.

On Feb. 8, according to Behler, Patterson met with Ken Brown, the chief financial officer, to discuss the unfolding problems. Patterson was not yet suspected of any wrongdoing.

As the internal inquiry continued over last weekend and more interviews were conducted, Patterson was summoned to another meeting on Tuesday.

Instead, her body was found Tuesday in a car in the parking lot of the Wal-Mart north of the Division Street Y.

Patterson left a suicide note admitting she had been stealing money, Behler said. And she included information that helped auditors unravel what is being considered a $500,000 case of corporate fraud that began in August 2010.

Police cordoned off the Wal-Mart parking lot Tuesday. Detectives are not releasing details of their investigation, and Patterson’s family could not be reached Friday.

It is unknown how or if the money has been spent, or if it might be recoverable. Patterson lived in a simple north Spokane home near Francis Avenue.

Behler, however, said he wanted to disclose what he termed a “tragedy” to the community in order to preserve Skils’kin’s standing.

“We will not be defined by this one event,” Behler said. “Skils’kin makes Spokane a better place to live. We’re one of the thousand points of light.”


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