'Tis the Season to Bone Nonprofits, Fa La La La La, La La La La

'Tis the Season to Bone Nonprofits, Fa La La La La, La La La La

Above is the logo on boxes like those stolen this past Thanksgiving weekend from the United Labor Agency of Orange County in Garden Grove, where 20,000 pounds of food, more than $25,000 worth of donated toys and other items for the benefit of underprivileged families were taken. Total estimated loss: more than $100,000.

This crime, coupled with other recent theft cases mostly from within, got Clockwork to thinking there have been a fair number of local nonprofits getting ripped off lately. A check of the crime archives proved this to be true, and a law enforcement authority explained why:

It's the economy, stupid.

A quick rundown:

Los Alamitos Rotary Club
A pre-trial hearing is scheduled Monday for club treasurer Patrick David Dugan, 49, of Huntington Beach, on charges the Certified Public Accountant transferred $49,000 in club funds into his personal account. He faces up to four years and four months in state prison if convicted on felony counts of grand theft and money laundering. 

New Directions for Women
A pre-trial hearing is scheduled Wednesday for Steven John Lafata, 59, of Costa Mesa, who is accused of stealing almost $35,000 from the drug and alcohol rehabilitation nonprofit for women. He allegedly promised to use $35,000 from the charity to purchase and restore to collector car quality a 1988 Ford Mustang Cobra prototype, which could then be raffled for between $65,000 and $75,000. He is accused of instead purchasing a 1989 Ford Mustang appraised at $8,300 and performing minimal work on the car. Further, he allegedly filed false information with the DMV claiming the car cost $750 to avoid registration fees. When the charity raffle winner went to pick up the "Cobra" and complained that was not the promised car, the Orange County Sheriff's Department investigated, the Orange County District Attorney Major Fraud Unit whipped up charges, and Lafata could get up to four years and four months in state prison if convicted.

Compass Bible Church
A Dec. 15 pre-trial hearing is scheduled for financial secretary Crystina Renee Bock, 34, of Ladera Ranch, who is accused of stealing more than $200,000 from the weekly offerings made by congregants to the Aliso Viejo church. The 62 felony counts of grand theft and sentencing enhancements could get her up to 45 years and eight months in state prison if convicted. Between June 2005 and September 2008, Bock is accused of taking more than 440 congregants' donation checks and depositing them into her personal account.

Project Independence
A Dec. 18 pre-trial hearing is scheduled for Shandie Marie Lacsamana Rosete, 33, of Placentia, the former caretaker for the Orange County nonprofit that provides employment and independent living services to developmentally disabled adults. Rosete allegedly stole more than $100,000 from 14 developmentally disabled clients by writing 663 checks from their accounts to herself without their knowledge or consent. She faces up to 19 years in state prison if convicted.

Casa Youth Shelter
A Dec. 18 pre-trial hearing is scheduled for executive assistant Lydia Fitzgerald, who is accused of stealing nearly $450,000 over a three-year period from the Los Alamitos charitable organization that provides temporary shelter and counseling for runaways and youth in crisis. 
Fitzgerald allegedly forged numerous checks to herself and obtained a credit card on a pre-existing company account in her own name without authorization from the shelter. She is
further accused of using the stolen money to remodel her home and buy vacations, meals, clothes, a car, a boat, and numerous other luxury items. When the shelter's bank account began to deplete due to the thefts, Fitzgerald allegedly opened a line of credit in Casa Youth's name to make payroll.

Boys & Girls Clubs of Tustin
The nonprofit's former chief professional officer, Clifford Lewis Polston, 60, of Tustin, was sentenced last Monday to three years probation and 200 hours of community service and ordered to pay $140,000 in restitution to cover the $114,000 plus interest he stole from the club. Polston, who pleaded guilty to felony grand theft, used the funds to pay for personal vacations and the salary for his wife's fictitious job. Confronted by his board of directors, and just before resigning, Polston altered the board's written sick-time policy--without the board's knowledge--so he would get paid for used time upon termination. He then sued the board after he was fired for breach of contract, alleging he was owed $76,700 for accrued sick time per the policy--leaving out, of course, he was the one who secretly wrote in that provision. The club provides social and educational programs at safe facilities for underprivileged and at-risk youth.

Orangewood Children's Foundation
Former Chief Financial Officer Tracy Lynn Salcido, 40, of Yorba Linda, was sentenced on Nov. 4 to 12 years in state prison and ordered to pay more than $1.1 million after pleading guilty to 206 felony counts of forgery, 20 felony counts of falsifying records and sentencing enhancements for aggravated white collar crime over $500,000 and loss over $150,000 and $100,000. between March 1999 and July 2005, Salcido stole more than $780,000 from the Santa Ana nonprofit that shelters and supports children who are the victims of abuse, neglect, or abandonment.

International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 504
Office manager Teresa Cora Luna, 35, was ordered Oct. 6 to spend five months in federal prison for embezzling $67,416 from the union that represents workers at Disneyland and the Orange County Performing Arts Center. She pleaded guilty last year to writing 39 checks to herself out of the union's account and forging signatures of local union officers between November 2004 and June 2005. Her defense attorney said Luna stole the money so she could pay for an expensive hockey program that would keep her two sons out of trouble, that she was depressed from having been out of work for two years and that she handed all her finances over to her fiancée. But prosecutors and the judge noted Luna forged another union check right after she started plea-agreement negotiations, something her attorney acknowledged by explaining his client was destitute and needed the money for food.

Senior Information Services
This was actually a for-profit company--too for-profit based on the June 30 conviction of Jeffrey Gordon Butler, 51, of San Juan Capistrano, for stealing the life savings of numerous seniors in a "Ponzi" scheme and filing false tax returns on his ill-gotten profits after fraudulently raising more than $11 million in investments from unsuspecting elderly victims through the illegal sale of unqualified promissory notes or stocks. He was found guilty of 693 felony counts for making untrue statements of material fact in the offer and sale of securities, the offer and sale of unqualified securities, theft from elderly persons, using a scheme to defraud in the sale of a security, and filing false tax returns for years 2001 through 2004. His 49-year-old wife, Peggy Warmath Butler, was convicted of four felony counts of filing false tax returns and excessive taking sentencing enhancements. Due to the large number of criminal charges, it took two days for the verdict to be read. He faces a maximum sentence of more than 300 years in state prison, while the Mrs. could get up to 10 years. Proposed changes in state law prompted Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas to warn, "Sacramento lawmakers are currently considering reducing many felonies, including those for which the Butlers have been convicted, into misdemeanors. If they go through with this dangerous proposal, we may have to retroactively dismiss many of the counts." He called the plan by the governor and Legislature "foolish."

Calvary Baptist Yorba Linda Church and School
Father and son pastors Richard Wimberly Cunningham, 76, of Moreno Valley, and Philip Ladd Cunningham, 52, of Laurinburg, North Carolina, were each sentenced June 12 to two years in state prison for stealing more than $3 million from church offerings at Calvary Baptist Yorba Linda Church and School to pay for luxury items, including time shares and cars. The Cunninghams had paid $3.1 million in restitution to the church by the time they were sentenced. Besides stealing funds and moving money between accounts in a bid to have the crimes go undetected, the younger Cunningham also forged the signature of another associate pastor without his knowledge on fraudulent checks that required two signatures.

Community Senior Serv
Finance director Medelia Chiong Fernan, 50, of Fountain Valley, was convicted April 23 of stealing more than $900,000 from the Anaheim nonprofit that provides services to senior citizens by writing checks to her personal accounts. She was sentenced to 13 years and eight months in state prison, and ordered to pay $941,000 in restitution. She had altered the accounting records to falsely reflect that nearly 250 checks were paid to common vendors by the nonprofit.

Public Affairs Counsel Susan Kang Schroeder of the Orange County District Attorney says there seems to be so many of these cases of late partly because her office chooses to publicize them along with the usual murders, sexual molestations and other crimes that draw the headlines (and only make up a fraction of what prosecutors deal with day in and day out). Greed also motivates so many crimes in Orange County beyond the ripoffs of nonprofits.

But before offering those qualifiers, Schroeder said this: "There is a trend of economic crimes or fraud that goes on during bad economic times."

That is precisely why those cases get the press releases from her office, to make Orange Countians aware that times like these produce crimes like these.

"A lot of times these nonprofits work on a shoe string, and they tend to have kind of shoddy bookkeeping," Schroeder explained. This often motivates those in positions of trust, which the DA's office has found is often females with no prior criminal records, to sipphon funds.

"Some times they are motivated by greed, some times it's to pay off gambling debts . . . and, a lot of times, it's just to improve their lives," says Schroeder, who has no sympathy for such criminals.

"They are really taking money from people who need it the most," she said.

In the case of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tustin, officials pleaded with prosecutors to have Polston make restitution for the sake of their young clients, Schroeder mentioned.

It was an employee who discovered the storage area had been broken into and several items were lifted at labor agency at 13252 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove. Truckloads of toys, canned food, diapers and toiletries meant to be distributed to underprivileged children and families were stolen in what the Garden Grove Police Department labeled a highly orchestrated burglary.

Several items, which had been collected at food and toy drives over the past year, were contained in boxes with a company logo "Artistry in Motion." All stolen boxes had a 6" number ranging from 9 to 13 on one of the end panels of the box that was handwritten using a permanent marker. Anyone with information is urged to contact the Garden Grove Police Investigator Wasinger at (714) 741-5827.

"This really has us down and devastated," Bill Fogarty, United Labor's executive director, told the Orange County Register. "You wonder who would do a thing like that. These families depend on us. We only have days until Christmas and are left wondering what we're going to do."


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