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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Jewels Helping Hands denies city request to vacate building for Spokane’s homeless as allegations swirl

Jewels Helping Hands volunteer Greg Cochrane moves empty blanket boxes donated by American Airlines out of a warming center for homeless people on South Cannon Street on Friday, Nov. 8, 2019. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane city officials have asked Jewels Helping Hands to vacate a building on South Cannon Street where the nonprofit is contracted to run a warming center for homeless people this winter, but the nonprofit has refused that request.

The city said Friday it was reviewing new concerns about Jewels Helping Hands but still aimed to open the shelter “no later” than Nov. 22. Those concerns apparently were related to years-old theft allegations against the organization’s founder, Julie Garcia.

The city’s announcement, which prompted a boisterous protest outside City Hall, came days after a conservative website revealed that Jason Green, Jewels’ treasurer, pleaded guilty to mail fraud in 2013 and spent time in federal prison for receiving kickbacks in a former executive job.

“With the new allegations, we thought we needed a full pause of everything today after an intense week of new information and changes,” city spokeswoman Marlene Feist said. “That included asking them to vacate. We have handled other situations similarly.”

The leaders of the nonprofit were defiant Friday afternoon.

“We are completely in compliance with our contract, and so the city has no right to vacate us from the building,” said Green, who also works as an accountant for a local restaurant group.

“Jewels Helping Hands team has spent countless hours preparing the warming center for operations, hiring staff and responding and complying with every request the city has made of us throughout this process,” the nonprofit later said in a statement.

“Throughout this process the city has consistently created barriers, roadblocks and unnecessary delays. This is yet another slanderous attempt to derail Jewels Helping Hands operating a warming center.”

Asked if police would be called to remove Jewels from the building, Feist said, “At this point we’re not going to take any action. … We don’t want to make a humongous scene.

“We’re disappointed. We hope our contractors will work with us in good faith, and so this is just disappointing to see.”

Jewels Helping Hands volunteer Greg Cochrane moves empty blanket boxes donated, by American Airlines, out of the warming center for homeless people on South Cannon Street, Friday, Nov. 8, 2019, in Spokane, Wash. Max Romero sits atop one of the 30 beds he assembled for the shelter. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Jewels Helping Hands volunteer Greg Cochrane moves empty blanket boxes donated, by American Airlines, out of the warming center for homeless people on South Cannon Street, Friday, Nov. 8, 2019, in Spokane, Wash. Max Romero sits atop one of the 30 beds he assembled for the shelter. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

City Council members who approved the $740,000 shelter contract have defended Green, saying he served his prison time and deserves a second chance. His manager at Eat Good Group, which runs many popular restaurants in Spokane, praised his performance earlier this week.

“I haven’t seen any allegation, by even the most robust detractors of Jewels, that they’re in violation of the contract,” City Councilman Breean Beggs said Friday. “As long as they’re providing the services they’re contracted to provide the city, they should keep doing that.”

Jewels staff said they were blindsided by several city announcements this week. On Thursday, the city announced it had amended the contract to require Jewels to carry fidelity insurance following news of Green’s fraud conviction.

On Friday, Mayor David Condon’s office said in a news release: “An additional serious concern related to the background of one of the nonprofit’s corporate officers has been raised to the city.”

Feist declined to elaborate on that new concern, but critics of the shelter contract have called attention to an attempted theft charge that was filed against Garcia in 2013 and later dismissed.

“We did have another allegation that was raised to us that we thought was serious enough that we should review it before the final execution of that contract,” Feist said.

According to Spokane County Superior Court records, Garcia was accused of stealing money from a 96-year-old man while working as his in-home caregiver in October 2012.

Prosecutors alleged that she manipulated checks from the man so she could pocket money directly rather than through her employer, Comfort Keepers.

The company and police began investigating after a Wells Fargo bank employee reported that Garcia had tried to cash a check but didn’t have her ID. The employee considered the encounter suspicious, according to court records.

Garcia’s supervisors and relatives of the man also reported finding a $50,000 certificate of deposit from the man’s bank account that was placed, suspiciously, in Garcia’s name. Relatives were able to regain control of the money.

A detective recommended charges of forgery, second-degree theft and first-degree attempted theft. Only the final count stuck in court, and prosecutors dropped the case in 2015. Records don’t indicate why.

Garcia did not respond to messages seeking comment, though Green called the allegations “false and ridiculous.”

“The charges were dropped because they were completely false allegations made by someone with a personal vendetta,” added Tanya Riordan, a spokeswoman for Jewels. “There’s nothing more to say about that.”

On Friday afternoon, about two dozen protesters gathered with drums and megaphones outside City Hall, directing chants of “Honor the contract!” at the windows of the mayor’s office. Among the protestors was Nicolette Ocheltree, a local activist who ran a brief write-in campaign in the mayor’s race.

City Council President Ben Stuckart, who conceded defeat to Nadine Woodward in the mayor’s race Tuesday, said he couldn’t comment Friday because he was on vacation and had not been checking emails.

Stuckart defended Green earlier this week, saying he had known about Green’s fraud conviction about six months before it caught the attention of Shift Washington, a website run by Republican political consultants.

Beggs said he didn’t object to an investigation of Jewels but saw no reason to delay the opening of the warming center as nighttime temperatures dip below freezing.

“We know for a fact that people are going to be suffering tonight if those doors aren’t open,” Beggs said.

He noted that the Guardians Foundation, which ran warming shelters for the city last year, was allowed to continue operating even though it, too, faced allegations. Garcia and others have accused Guardians staff of propositioning and having sex with homeless women.

Earlier this week, Guardians director Mike Shaw said he had tried to investigate those allegations, but it was too late by the time they were reported to him. He said sexual encounters between Guardians staff and clients are prohibited. He also suggested the allegations were fabricated to ensure his foundation wouldn’t be selected to run warming shelters again this winter.

Guardians has been backed by Councilman Mike Fagan, whose son has worked for the foundation. Fagan, the only conservative member of the council, cast the lone vote against the Jewels contract late last month.

The Jewels warming center, at 827 S. Cannon St., is expected to serve 60 to 80 adults at first and eventually reach a capacity of 120. The city said Friday that several other charities – Catholic Charities, Truth Ministries, Women’s Hearth and Hope House – were temporarily increasing capacity or extending hours to fill gaps in service.