Tulare cemetery drops forensic audit

Four of five trustees agree to disband the committee exploring options for a forensic audit recommended by the grand jury in 2020

TULARE – Two years after the grand jury issued its 2019-20 report criticizing the Tulare Public Cemetery District for mismanagement, the cemetery board is ready to bury the past.

The board disbanded its committee exploring a forensic audit, the only unresolved recommendation from the Tulare County civil grand jury’s investigation into citizen and board member complaints. 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 for fiscal years 2015-16 through 2019-20.

Trustees Alberto Aguilar and Charlie Ramos were placed on the ad hoc committee to gather quotes for the audit. Ramos, chair of the committee, reported in March he had 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 web site. The cost for the single-year audit is $15,500. The board struggled with the price tag considering the alleged embezzlement could be as low as $10,000.

When the board returned to discuss either accepting McKenzie’s quote or waiting for the other two companies to respond at its Dec. 2 meeting, Ramos decided to move on and trustees Steve Presant and Jim Pennington agreed. Chair Xavier Avila put the final nail in coffin by disbanding the committee.

“As a member of this committee and this board, I don’t think there is a need for it,” Ramos said.

The original 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.

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.

The board narrowly voted to move forward with a forensic audit on Nov. 20, 2020 as part of its response to the grand jury report. Pennington and former board member Vicki Gilson voted in favor of a one-year forensic audit, while then-chair Steve Presant voted against it because he wanted to move on from 2017, and Aguilar voted against because he wanted the full five-year audit recommended by the grand jury. The swing vote was Avila, who decided to go along with it to ensure no crimes had taken place.

“Currently, right now, there is no smoking gun,” Avila said last month. “We need to fish or cut bait.”

Deputy County Counsel Aaron Zaheen, attorney for the cemetery district, said the statute of limitations for civil action on embezzlement is four years, so the statute of limitations on the issue expired in September 2021. He explained there is no statute of limitation on criminal action for felony embezzlement, defined as more than $950, but it was not within the board’s purview to pursue criminal charges.

“A criminal action is not for this district to investigate,” Zaheen said. “It is not this district’s mission, it is not this district’s job.”

Zaheen said the only option for criminal charges would be for the district to present evidence to the proper authorities. Aguilar submitted his evidence for the alleged embezzlement to the District Attorney’s Office in a Sept. 29, 2017 letter claiming “The financial data submitted to the county treasure[er] for payment of these checks and for payment of other financial payments were done without board approval and through the submission of fraudulent records by Marilyn Correia.”

On Dec. 15, 2017, assistant district attorney David Alavezos wrote a letter notifying the cemetery board “no criminal activity can be proved based on the witness interviews and evidence provided, therefore our investigation is closed.” Alavezos’ letter concluded by stating if an audit uncovered evidence of embezzlement or other criminal conduct his office “would be happy to reopen the investigation.”

Avila referred back to the letter before making his decision to disband the forensic audit committee on Dec. 2.

“The DA looked into that and found no evidence,” Avila told the board. “I don’t want to get into accusations that have already been addressed.”

Aguilar was unwilling to accept the board’s decision, saying he would again appeal to the grand jury with his complaints.

“They are the ones that did the investigation last time, they made the recommendation,” Aguilar said. “And they can come back and do the same thing all over again since the board wants to be in denial that something was wrong, because we all know that there was.”

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