Forensic audit fading for cemetery

Tulare Cemetery District board says several Valley accounting firms are not interested in taking on investigation

TULARE – While some might argue the protocols in place at the Tulare Cemetery District are antiquated, it seems undeniable many of the current disagreements between board members stem back to at least 2017.

The fall of 2017 was a tumultuous time for the cemetery that included the resignation of three longtime employees, the resignation of two board members, and left the public with a dilapidated cemetery and little to no leadership to operate it. Last summer, the Tulare County Grand Jury issued a report on an investigation of alleged violations of district policies and state regulations at the cemetery. The cemetery board partially agreed with the grand jury’s findings that antiquated bookkeeping practices had led to inaccurate and lost payroll documents and poor accounting of its endowment care fund. The board also partially agreed on a 3-2 vote to look into the grand jury’s recommendations to conduct a forensic audit.

Lost in the verbal tug-of-war at the infamous March 25 meeting, was an update on that decision. When the cops left, the public returned to the meeting and dust settled, Board member Charlie Ramos said prospects to get a forensic audit looked pretty bleak.

Ramos, the newest member of the cemetery’s board of directors, said he had reached out to Valley-based accounting firms and none of them were interested in taking on the investigation.

“Three companies didn’t want to touch it,” Ramos said.

Board member Alberto Aguilar argued they may find more missing money and used another cemetery district as an example. In 2016, the Visalia Public Cemetery District’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.

Current Visalia Cemetery District Manager Cindy Summers had just taken over the job in early 2016 when she noticed discrepancies in the books between what was received and what was deposited. Once the audit confirmed the discrepancies, Summers said the district hired an accounting firm to conduct a five-year forensic audit at a cost of $50,000.

“There was some difficulty finding a firm because not a whole lot of auditors do that kind of work,” Summer recalled. “There are some additional requirements and a special type of licensing.”

Based on what Visalia spent, Aguilar has stated it would be reasonable to assume a one-year forensic audit would cost around $10,000, possibly $12,000 or $15,000.

“It won’t cost us that much money for just fiscal year 2017-18,” Aguilar said.

Board chair Xavier Avila was one of two current board members, along with Jim Pennington, who voted in favor of seeking estimates for a forensic audit when the board narrowly passed the item in November. Avila said he isn’t sure if he would vote in favor of moving forward with an audit but would welcome the chance to put it up for a vote to the current board to put issues of the past to rest. He said if a firm came back with a number around $10,000 he would support the audit, but anything over $15,000 might be more than it’s worth.

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, although Aguilar has said he is also concerned with massive fluctuations in the endowment fund, which also began in 2017. Cemeteries are allowed to create endowment care funds, separate, irrevocable trust account where the district deposits funds from selling interment space. The fund ensures that income will always be available for the continued maintenance and upkeep of the cemetery, even when all the interment spaces are sold. Between 2017 and 2019, the fund has not accounted for differences between income calculations and audited financials totaling about a $87,000 loss in 2017, $387,000 gain in 2018 and a $288,000 loss in 2020.

Avila reiterated Ramos’ point that if the auditors don’t find anything, insurance will not reimburse the district for the cost of audit.

“[Aguilar] is saying there is a three-foot trampoline at the bottom of a cliff and, if we hit it, we’ll be fine,” Avila said. “That’s a big if.”

Special meeting

The cemetery board is meeting today, April 7. The meeting will begin at 9 a.m. with one, open-session item to hire a new foreman. Most of the meeting will likely occur in closed session as the district will revisit anticipated litigation with the families of Justiniana Jacinto and Silvano Martinez, both of whom were buried in the wrong graves in February and then dug up and buried in the proper graves last month.

The board approved a settlement of $3,058 with the Jacinto family during closed session at its March 23 meeting, but the amount may have to be amended as the board continues to investigate how the mistake was made and what all of the costs for the family were. No action has been taken on the Martinez disinterment.

For the last year, some members of the public have been calling for disciplinary action against district manager Lenore Castenada. Since she took over in 2017, the district has had to disinter at least four bodies because they were buried in the wrong place, and possibly as many as eight since 2016, although The Sun-Gazette’s public records request on the actual number is still pending. The district fired Brian Viera after the most recent disinterments, but those attending recent meetings claim Castenada is the problem and not the grounds crew.

For the second time in two weeks, the district manager position will be the subject of an evaluation in closed session. Unlike the March 23 meeting, today’s meeting included a “direction” from the board and the “discipline, dismissal or release” of an employee.

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