Is stealing, then giving back, OK?
If I went out this weekend and stole a car from another resident, someone sees me driving that car and tells the owner, then I gave it back, is everything still OK? Will I not be arrested for grand theft auto? Is this not still considered stealing?
In a story that has been very difficult to get anyone involved to talk publicly or go on record about, rumors continue to surround the Nederland Heritage Festival since last year. It was then when an NHF Office Manager stepped down amongst allegations over misuse of funds.
Since then, inconsistent reports of dollar amounts that range from five figure to six figure amounts have been returned. Returned? Meaning they had been taken without consent?
According to Jim Wimberley, attorney for the NHF, “Funds were returned to the NHF accounts to the full satisfaction of the board and their counsel”. Also, according to Wimberley, there was a full and thorough investigation analyzing issues and potential issues in detail, related to reported issues as to possible misuse and/or misdirection of NHF funds.
In addition, Nederland Police Chief stated that the Nederland Police Department was never involved in any type of criminal investigation over misuse of funds or theft.
Both of these make perfect sense when you don’t want to draw attention to your 501 c3 non-profit operation. A police report leaves a paper trail that can be found by anyone making an open records request. If media were able to have access to this information, it could catch the attention of the Texas Attorney General, who has the right to take over or open an investigation. And could potentially find that the board was also negligent in their responsibilities for not finding sooner, and be responsible as well. But either way, could ultimately remove this 501 c3 standing from the NHF.
Thus, there is a motive to keep quiet.
The Nederland Heritage Festival is a great event each year. Drawing people from all across Jefferson County. We definitely don’t want to do anything to jeopardize the event or the board.
However, wrong is wrong when you are talking about this amount of money. According to Clifford Perlman, attorney at Perlman & Perlman in New York, the board’s first responsibility is to investigate the alleged crime, which they did. Next the board should confront the perpetrator(s). This was also done. Next, the board should consider contacting appropriate legal authorities whether local police, District Attorney’s office, or FBI and US Attorney if the criminal activity occurred in more than one state or if it violates federal law. This was not done.
Finally, Perlman states, the board does have fiduciary responsibility to attempt to have the funds returned. But it is also incumbent on the board to do its best to determine which of the following options make sense, given the facts and circumstances at issue. Some of the common considerations include:
The cost of seeking the return of the funds outweighs the amount of funds that were stolen;
There is significant risk that filing a lawsuit or otherwise speaking publicly about the incident may lead to negative media coverage, and cause significant damage to their reputation; or
The likelihood of recovery is very small.
And after considering all of the facts and circumstances, and the various options for recovering the funds, the board may, in good faith, elect not to pursue expensive options such as bringing a lawsuit, hiring investigators, etc. The board may instead choose to take alternative reasonable, private, and/or cost-efficient actions to recover the stolen funds, such as by offering the perpetrator a repayment plan.
Which seems to be what the Nederland Heritage Festival Foundation Board did. However, setting a precedence that it is ok to steal over $100,000 and ask for it to be paid back with absolutely zero jail time is not OK.
Furthermore, this strategy could hurt the organization more than the theft. As it stands, there are plenty or rumors accusing those within the nonprofit of being untrustworthy and this may be wholly unfair. This is why public admissions of wrongdoing are so important — they show a willingness to publicly address wrong.
As of now, we don’t know exactly how the money was taken and/or whether the board has changed any policies to prevent such a thing from happening again and this may well cause donors to think twice about the organization.
As they say, sunlight is the best disinfectant.
CASA of Orange has a similar situation going on right now. Over the past few years the office manager embezzled over $40,000 and was caught. An internal investigation is ongoing. The employee has been terminated. The Orange Police Department has been notified. And the CASA Board Members have been actively and positively promoting CASA to the community. Letting the citizens know this happened, they are on top of it. They didn’t hide it. And yes, this person will most likely be going to jail.
Non-profit organizations are a gift to our communities. They do far more for our communities than any of us realize.
So although the NHF board did have the right to not press this issue further and they allowed this person to not be punished for their callus actions, is it right? If it was you or I, we know where we’d be. Watching our backs for the next six to ten years in state prison.