Awakened by the ‘e’ word’s warning

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Innocent until proven guilty.

Let’s say that again: Innocent until proven guilty.

For the record, the executive director of a local nonprofit that uses taxpayer funds, North Idaho Housing Coalition, is no longer employed by the agency after leading it since its inception in 2009. That much is known. What’s also known is that a financial audit is being conducted while the agency’s office in Coeur d’Alene is closed. Beyond that, speculation pretty much rules the day.

When an organization’s leader leaves under something of a cloud — in this case, no retirement was announced, no celebration held, and the former director declines to return calls from the local newspaper — the “e” word often surfaces. And when officials acknowledge that the audit is looking for financial irregularities, the “e” word picks up a little steam.

Embezzlement is no stranger to these parts, alas. In recent years, cases of massive theft have rocked the nonprofit Court Appointed Special Advocates, Kootenai County government and cities large and small, including Coeur d’Alene and Athol. In the summer of 2012, a city of Coeur d’Alene finance employee was caught after embezzling $365,000 over six years. In June 2015, former Athol City Clerk Sally Hansen was sentenced to four years in prison for embezzling $417,879 from city coffers. It stands to reason that if someone can steal that much money from an organization with a relatively small budget, nobody is safe.

As facts will eventually clear up the North Idaho Housing Coalition mystery, this is as good a time as any to remind the people responsible for overseeing public funds of the higher level of trust that’s been placed in them. Rigorous audits that might seem an extravagance should instead be seen as imperatives. Workshops geared toward the prevention and detection of employee fraud or theft should be accessed. Trust but verify should be standard operating procedure.

It’s our hope that the housing coalition’s former director will be fully exonerated, her name cleared and the organization’s reputation restored. Having said that, stories like this one can provide timely reminders of the importance of extreme vigilance for all public purse-string holders. Let’s see who’s paying attention.

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