Tulare Cemetery board may pass on audit

Tulare Public Cemetery board says $15,000 forensic audit into 2017 may be more trouble than it’s worth; attorney says statute of limitations on possible payroll fraud has passed

TULARE – The Tulare Public Cemetery District is closer than ever to unearthing the truth about alleged financial fraud and abuse dating back to 2017. Unfortunately, it may be too late for it to matter.

Board trustee Alberto Aguilar has been calling for a forensic audit of the cemetery district’s finances since he first presented evidence of possible wage fraud and embezzlement by three former employees to the Tulare County District Attorney’s Office in September 2017. And even though the DA said there was not enough evidence to file charges, the Tulare County Grand Jury’s 2019-20 report called for a forensic audit of the district’s finances from 2015-2019 to not only look into potentially inaccurate and lost payroll documents as well as the possible mishandling of its endowment care fund.

Last fall, the cemetery board narrowly voted to look into a forensic audit, but only garnered enough votes by limiting the scope of the audit to a single year, 2017-18, instead of a five-year span. Joining Aguilar on the ad hoc committee to gather quotes for the audit was trustee Charlie Ramos, who reported in March he reached out to three companies and none of them were interested in taking on the project for the controversial board.

At its Oct. 28 meeting, Aguilar said he found at least two companies, and possibly a third, willing to do the forensic audit. He presented the board with a quote from McKenzie Forensic Auditors, Inc. to investigate fraudulent payroll claims, management embezzlement, if management properly reported all money transactions to the board and if management allowed a former employee to live on district property rent free. Based in Hollywood, Calif., McKenzie has been a leading provider of forensic accounting services for 25 years, according to its website. The cost for the single-year audit is $15,500.

Board chair Xavier Avila said he was still in favoring of doing a forensic audit but not unless it was closer to the $10,000 range, something he stated in March. That’s because the audit could cost more money than the amount that was allegedly embezzled or overpaid.

The need for the audit dates back to 2017 when the cemetery was in turmoil, both politically and financially. Aguilar, who was appointed to the board in September 2017, shared evidence with the Tulare County Grand Jury and Tulare County District Attorney’s Office in 2019 detailing how he believed former district manager Marilyn Correia and her husband, former grounds manager Steve Cunningham, resigned within a week of each other and were paid out for unused vacation time they had not earned.

The alleged embezzlement of unearned payroll could be as low as $10,000 and only up to $15,000.

Ramos agreed, saying the audit may be more trouble than it is worth.

“If it’s $5,000 [allegedly stolen] are we going to spend $15,000 to find out if it happened?,” Ramos said. “Going back and digging up bones is not what I’m about.”

Aguilar argued the suspected stolen money in 2017 may just be the start of finding more missing funds. He used the example of the Visalia Public Cemetery District’s embezzlement case against its former manager. In 2016, the Visalia Cemetery’s annual audit found approximately $340,000 had been underreported in the district’s finances. The information was found about the time longtime bookkeeper Dona Shores left the cemetery district. The district reported the missing money to the Visalia Police Department and hired an accounting firm to conduct a five-year forensic audit. A year and a half after the audit, the Visalia Police Department arrested Shores for embezzling $1.2 million from fiscal year 2012 through 2016.

Deputy County Counsel Matt Pierce, acting as the attorney for the district, said even if the audit uncovered fraud, the district wouldn’t be able to do anything with that information because the statute of limitations had expired. Pierce said the statute for civil charges expired in September 2020 and for criminal charges in September 2021.

“I don’t know how much time you want to put in this,” Pierce said.

Avila cautioned Aguilar against making the scope of the audit too broad increasing the cost to a point where the majority of the board would vote against it. He likened the forensic audit to fishing and said if you don’t narrow yourself to where the most fish are you waste a lot of time trolling the lake.

“Would I spend $5,000 or $10,000 to do a little fishing?,” Avila said. “Maybe.”

Trustees Steve Presant and Jim Pennington didn’t seem interested in pursuing an audit with a $15,000 price tag and the attorney seemed to agree.

“My advice would be not to,” Pierce said.

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