By CRAIG NORTHRUP
Executives at the North Idaho Housing Coalition expressed bittersweet relief this week after a Kootenai County judge handed down an unexpected decision that concludes a two-year black hole in the organization’s history.
Judge John Mitchell issued a summary judgment in a civil suit by the coalition against Lori Isenberg, its former executive director now serving five years for embezzling more than $500,000 from the Coeur d’Alene nonprofit dedicated to helping low-income families rent or buy homes.
“This was the final piece of this ugly embezzlement puzzle, this really dark time in our past,” coalition president Kerri Thoreson said. “What started 22 months ago, when we first noticed these irregularities — which turned out to be gigantic, not just careless bookkeeping but hundreds of thousands of dollars in embezzlement — is finally over.”
Isenberg pleaded guilty in April in federal court to embezzling $579,495.75 in three years. She deputized her four daughters into a scheme that established phony companies, funneling money through those businesses and creating false invoices for imagined services.
“What I did was legally, ethically and morally wrong,” Isenberg told the court during her April sentencing. “I am fully aware of the harm I did to the coalition.”
While coalition leadership said Isenberg had already paid back the money she stole, Thoreson emphasized the civil suit was intended to recover financial damages Isenberg inflicted on the organization during the scheme. Represented by Mark Ellingsen of Witherspoon Kelley, the coalition originally sought a matching $579,495.75 in financial damages. Thoreson said she was stunned when Judge Mitchell tripled the damages in a summary judgment, requiring Isenberg must now pay $1.7 million.
“As you can imagine, we were just … wow,” Thoreson said. “Judge Mitchell determined he didn’t need any more time, because her guilt was already established. There wasn’t any need for a trial. She admitted to what she did. For me, I just wanted the coalition to feel whole again. I think this is something I didn’t even consider could happen.”
Amy Evans, who served as coalition vice president during the investigation and throughout the court proceedings, concurred.
“We’re very pleased the organization can move forward now,” she said. “We’re passionate about the organization, and we wanted to see the organization made whole again.”
Evans added that while she’s encouraged by the ruling, no part of the process has been pleasant for her or the nonprofit.
“The actions of Lori were deceitful, hurtful and devastating to the organization,” she said. “I don’t think the wounds will ever fully heal. What’s important to Kerri and I is that it demonstrates that, as a board, to move forward and do the right thing is not always an easy path. We knew from the very first suspicion we had to do the right thing, which was to pursue criminal charges and the civil suit. I just hope the message it sends is, ‘This behavior is unacceptable, and people have to be held accountable.’”
Isenberg is serving her sentence in federal custody. Jed Nixon, Isenberg’s attorney, said his client is weighing her future options but would not comment any further.
Isenberg’s legal woes are not behind her. She is still a suspect in the death of her husband, Larry, who died under suspicious circumstances in a February 2018 boating incident.