Tuesday, 18 June 2024

Authorities investigate missing senior center funds

LUCERNE – State and local officials are taking a close look at the finances of the Lucerne Senior Center, after center board members asked for help in accounting for funds they say came up missing nearly two years ago.

Jim Swatts, the center's executive board president, and J.J. Jackson, the center executive director, both agree that they have been unable to account for between $150,000 and $175,000 in funds from the center prior to taking over leadership of the center in the summer of 2005.

Sheriff Rod Mitchell confirmed this week that an investigation into the center's finances had recently been “revived,” thanks to interest from the Lake County Grand Jury.

Mitchell explained that the center investigation had been opened last year, but that his staff had been unable to continue because homicide and burglary cases had taken precedence, and investigating personnel changed.

The Grand Jury came to Mitchell and asked about what information he had in the investigation, and eventually opened up their own, Mitchell said.

“They're having someone with accounting experience look at it,” he explained.

“It's really the right way to approach a white collar crime-type investigation,” Mitchell added.

Mitchell said his staffers don't have the skills of forensic analysis specific to accounting investigations.

So he and the Grand Jury are collaborating on the investigation. “I'm lending money to help pay for the staffers,” he said.

Mitchell said he's grateful for the Grand Jury's efforts, because “it may provide the resolution that this case needs.”

The District Attorney's Office also is getting involved, said Mitchell. He and DA Jon Hopkins are networking to move the case forward, and Hopkins is lending extra investigators from his department to the effort.

Mitchell would not comment on whether or not the investigation was looking at any specific individuals.

Hopkins confirmed involvement in the case, and said he and Mitchell have discussed working together to finish the investigation.

As to the case's particulars, Hopkins said he could not comment. “I don't want it (the investigation) to run into any problems getting finished,” he said.

Documents in the care of Swatts showed numerous financial oddities, including many checks in large amounts – some has high as $6,000 – written from the center to the center, which then were cashed with no accounting of where the money went.

There are also dozens of checks to then-senior center employees which bounced, and resulted in those employees suing the center through the state Labor Division's Department of Industrial Relations. Swatts and Jackson said the state has ruled the center must pay $9,000 in back wages to four staffers, along with a $3,000 fine.

At times, the center's financial needs were so serious that center board members and private individuals wrote large checks to cover the center's bills. One individual wrote a $7,200 check to cover the center's Pacific Gas & Electric bill.

Documents showed that state Employment Development Department quarterly wage reports in 2004 weren't filed, medical premiums for employees weren't paid and the Lucerne center was borrowing thousands of dollars from the Lakeport Senior Center for purposes including keeping its Meals on Wheels program going.

Swatts and Jackson say there are many missing documents missing, which makes it impossible ever to conduct an official audit of the years before 2005.

They have slowly found more documents that showed the center's tenuous financial situation. Swatts said he and another senior center staff member have delivered two boxes of materials to Deputy Attorney General Jeff Ogata in the California Department of Justice.

Calls to Ogata's office were not returned. Gareth Lacey, spokesman for the California DOJ, said he could not confirm or deny if the agency's charitable trusts division received a complaint about the Lucerne Senior Center.

Neither Hopkins or Mitchell said they had yet had any contact with DOJ in the case.

Through a lot of hard work, senior center officials have managed to put the center on a better track. Jackson estimates that the center's overall debt is now at about $120,000.

The center and the county are working on an agreement in which the county would buy the center's thrift shop building for $150,000 and lease it back to the center for $1 a month. That, said Swatts, would help the center pay its debts and re-roof the main building.

Lake County News will continue to follow the case and publish updates as soon as they are available.

E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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