Authorities investigate $500,000 theft at nonprofit

St. Vincent de Paul of Tacoma-Pierce County closes one thrift store, lays off employees after ‘sophisticated fraud’ discovered

By Janet Cleaveland

The FBI is investigating a massive embezzlement at St. Vincent de Paul of Tacoma-Pierce County that spanned more than 10 years and took more than $500,000 from its district coffers. No arrests have been made, said Charlie D. Thompson, the nonprofit’s executive director.

Thompson, who joined the organization in Tacoma last August, revealed the “sophisticated fraud” involving multiple people when he wrote a Feb. 21 letter to St. Vincent de Paul members and supporters. “We went public because the financial situation is dire,” Thompson said in an interview. 

The theft required the agency to make cuts, close its Pacific Avenue thrift store and lay off 11 of its 27 employees, roughly 40 percent of its workforce. “Tough decisions had to be made to preserve the organization,” Thompson said. The agency continues operating two thrift stores.

No money was stolen from the accounts of the 16 parish-based conferences in the Tacoma-Pierce County Council, Thompson said. “It hurts the greater organization,” Thompson said of the theft, “but it didn’t affect contributions from the parish level.”

The theft was discovered in July, a month before Thompson arrived, during what he described as a routine review of the books by the council’s finance staff. “At the time, it was thought to be a relatively limited amount of stolen funds,” Thompson wrote to supporters.

But that earlier assessment evolved into an FBI investigation that has not wrapped up yet, he said.

“The best we can tell is there was a lot of purposeful confusion created in books” over a 10-year period, Thompson said. “To the untrained eye, everything might appear fine. To someone who might dig into it, it might be that things were disguised.” The scheme involved electronic checks written to vendors but directed to different accounts, he said.

The organization has tackled the fraud head-on, said Cheryl Lehman, president of the Tacoma-Pierce County Council. “We’ve taken all the steps — accounting safety checks — to see that this never happens again,” she said.

The council and its members have worked since 1926 to help the local poor and that work continues, Thompson said. Last year, the agency helped more than 50,000 people in need, equating to aid of more than $600,000. “We need your ongoing service, support and prayers now more than ever,” he told supporters.

February 28, 2014