Ray Estrella Fought the Santa Ana Elks Lodge and the Lodge Won

The onetime exalted ruler tried to the lodge into the 21st Century

Among her findings: There was no adequate documentation to support the sales from bingo operations or segregation of duties to provide checks and balances. The bingo operation had a change fund aggregating $2,300 that was not accounted for in the leading knights' books of accounts. There were no written policies and procedures for physical inventory count, ordering, issuing and safekeeping processes. There were no records maintained to track all inventories—including the bar, liquor and kitchen—at any given time. The people ordering, receiving and counting inventory were all the same individuals. Lotto sales were not always rung up. The daily sales/deposit summary was not properly supported by the right documentation or audit trail, including sales from special events or functions. Banquets were not supported with contracts. Dining guests walked out on their bills.

Gow recommended several fixes, and Estrella, as exalted ruler, set about trying to implement them. Later, as a trustee, he says, he discovered that Fernandez had replaced off-duty Santa Ana police officers, who had been providing security at lodge events, with employees of a security company run by a woman related to Fernandez's wife. According to Estrella, all of the guards, with the exception of the woman's boyfriend, were untrained, unlicensed and uninsured, but they were nonetheless paid $35 per hour. They worked at lodge events for at least five months and billed the Elks more than $6,000, Estrella says.

Estrella went to lodge leaders, he says, including Norm Fisher, the house committee chairman, but was continually stonewalled. When he asked human resources to provide information about the security-guard company, Estrella says, he received a guard card with 99 percent of the information redacted and only the guard's name showing, plus a blank invoice.

Mark Dancey
Mark Dancey

But in a Nov. 22, 2011, email to Estrella, Arthur Echternacht, a former Santa Ana Police Department officer and high-ranking Elks official, claimed the licensed co-owner of the company "quit" and that the lodge's house committee was looking "into a legitimate company."

Still, Estrella claims he confronted Fernandez at a lodge meeting later that same night, handing him a letter asking why the lodge was using the security company. According to Estrella, Fernandez just glared and turned his back on him.

After the meeting, Estrella approached Fernandez once more, asking him to read the letter and respond within a week. Estrella recalls that Fernandez became angry and aggressive, telling him he had no intention of reading the letter, that Estrella had no business asking anything of him and that, as the lodge's new exalted ruler, he didn't have to justify his actions to anyone.

At that point, Estrella says, Fernandez got nearly chest-to-chest with him, and when Estrella said there could be consequences for his actions, Fernandez told him to "bring it on."

The next day, Estrella received an email from Echternacht, which held the subject line "Security Guards." Echternacht told Estrella that he understood his frustration over not receiving support in the matter. "Ray, if you really want to support me in my year as president, please use your energy in trying to see what we can do about the financial disaster in our lodge at this time," Echternacht wrote, adding that he considered the security-company case closed.

Echternacht declined a request to be interviewed for this story.

* * *

Money matters aside, Estrella says, he was also determined to overcome what he saw as a legacy of racism that had plagued the lodge, which, he says, remains about 85 percent white and 15 percent Latino, despite being based in the one of the most overwhelmingly Latino cities in California.

With membership bleeding and the lodge suffering what he says was a lack of vision, exalted ruler Estrella saw an obvious solution: reach out to Latino families in the surrounding community. He opened the lodge for quinceañeras, which, he says, brought in up to $20,000 per event. When Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido called and said he was looking for a place to host a breakfast for the sister of Mexican President Felipe Calderon, Estrella didn't hesitate to offer the lodge; roughly 125 people attended the event. It created goodwill and extended the lodge's network in the community.

"I probably got three or four quinceañeras out of it," he says.

The reaction from the lodge was as predictable as it was ugly. According to Estrella, one member whined, "Pretty soon, we're going to have the Mexican flag flying out front." The enmity between many white and Latino Elks is most pronounced when it comes to the kitchen and serving staff, Estrella claims, with workers often referred to by white members as "Mexicans" and "wetbacks." According to Estrella, the staff logged several hours of overtime each week, often unpaid, in a work environment he likens to that of a prison.

"There's been constant abuse," he says, adding that Sue Kay, the lodge's club manager, has laid off club staff under the guise of cutting labor costs, but she has hired six new employees, five of whom, he says, are either related to her or Fernandez and his wife. (Kay did not respond to an interview request).In a November newsletter to the lodge, Fernandez wrote about the staff changes in the kitchen and bar of the club, saying the remaining staff was in support of the decisions. "Just to give you an example, our cooks are working extra hours before their shifts washing dishes and helping where they can," Fernandez claimed, with no sense of irony, given he'd just confirmed the overtime violations.

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