Scott Ball / Rivard Report
The Centro San Antonio employee accused of embezzlement has a long history of criminal fraud, Centro officials confirmed Sunday, and the total amount Alicia Henderson is thought to have taken from the nonprofit has increased from $175,000 to $260,000.
The San Antonio Express-News broke the story of Henderson's criminal past in an article published on the front page of its Sunday morning print edition. (The story has since been published on its website.)
The accountant was fired from her position in early November immediately after Centro leadership found out about the scheme, Centro board member Trish DeBerry told the Rivard Report Sunday. Henderson, who was hired two years ago from a temp agency, is listed as an office manager in a 2016 Centro report.
The Federal Bureau of Investigations is assisting the San Antonio Police Department, DeBerry said, but no charges have been filed and no arrests have been made in the case.
“Although we understand that an investigation has to proceed we hope that it’s wrapped up very quickly,” she said.
Sgt. Michelle Ramos, San Antonio Police Department spokeswoman, stated in an email Friday that, "This case is currently still under investigation." SAPD did not respond to a request for an updated comment Sunday.
Henderson was twice charged with theft of a check in 1989 and 1991 in Bexar County, Express-News reporter Richard Webner wrote in the story published Sunday, and in 1997 "pleaded guilty to felony bank fraud in U.S. District Court and was sentenced to one month in prison, five years of supervised release and $133,614 in restitution, federal court filing show. It's unclear whether she served time; she's not in a database of federal inmates." The story also details financial troubles such as the threat of foreclosure on her and her husband's home and debt to several lenders.
“[Henderson] appears to be a very sophisticated crook,” City Manager Sheryl Sculley told the Rivard Report.
The Rivard Report was unable to contact Henderson for a comment. A website she was responsible for, D&E Bookeeping & Tax, is now offline. A phone call to the site's owner and another number associated with Henderson went to voicemail Sunday evening.
Because Centro is a nonprofit and separate from the City, Sculley explained, it doesn't have the same policies. But background checks, especially for employees that deal with accounting and finance, are commonplace.
"I’m pretty surprised to learn that Centro didn’t perform a background check on this employee,” she said. “If the City uses a temp agency we require them to do background checks for people who work for the City … if we then hire that temp to become a City employee ... then we do another background check."
A background check would have revealed such red flags, DeBerry said, and should have been performed. "Obviously that did not happen."
Centro's hiring policy doesn't mandate background checks for employees, she said, but the board will take steps to "codify that it be mandatory for all employees."
"There will also be very strict financial policies and procedures that will be codified,” she added. "It’s not like those weren’t in place before, it’s that they were not followed.”
DeBerry said she doesn't know who specifically hired Henderson, but former President and CEO Pat DiGiovanni, who stepped down as the embezzlement emerged, and Tony Piazzi, chief operating officer, would likely have been involved.
"As CEO, Pat [DiGiovanni] would have to sign off on it," DeBerry said, adding that the board only hires executives, not staff.
DiGiovanni stepped down as CEO when Centro announced the scandal, though Centro and City officials believe he had nothing to do with it.
"While I had nothing to do with this matter, I need to take personal responsibility as CEO. I don’t want to be a distraction,” DiGiovanni told the Rivard Report last month.
As for Piazzi, there's "no indication he was involved ... his future [at Centro] is in question, but he has been cooperating with the forensics investigation," DeBerry said.
DiGiovanni did not respond to requests for comment on Sunday. Piazzi referred to DeBerry, a public relations executive, to speak for the organization.
Both the City and Centro are launching third-party investigations into the case, Sculley and DeBerry confirmed.
An imposter hired or convinced by Henderson to cover up the scheme conducted an elaborate, fake audit of Centro, DeBerry said. Fabricated emails and websites were also found.
Sculley is an ex oficio member of Centro's governance board. Lori Houston, assistant city manager, and Jim Mery, deputy director of the City's Center City Development and Operations Department, are members of the boards that oversee Centro Alliance and the public improvement district (PID), respectively.
Centro oversees operations of the membership branch, Centro Alliance, founded in 1982, and the PID, which was established in 1999 to operate and expand the Clean and Safe program. The latter arm of the organization handles special district taxes collected by the City from about 600 businesses downtown for improved cleaning and experience services in the area.
Centro also plays a role in advocacy and communication of downtown's importance to the city as a whole. Some local leaders have called for a separation of these functions as the organization moves forward.
"We’re looking at a lot of things,” DeBerry said. "I certainly think that there’s an opportunity for us to be a lot more laser-focused on our mission ... a prosperous downtown for everyone."
When locals and visitors come downtown for a clean, safe, "heightened" experience, she said, "then we're doing our job."
Through the investigation, Centro's team found even more evidence of embezzlement than originally thought when it was announced in November, such as false records that "got by the 2015 audit,” DeBerry said, referring to a legitimate audit Centro performed.
Another board member, who asked not to be identified, said that the crime "was so deftly hidden."
"Personally, I feel that Centro is the victim here. Even though there was a mistake in not doing the background check, a criminal embezzled money here," the board member continued. "We feel sick about this. We all feel that we put in so much time and effort for a good cause, and it feels like a rug coming out from under us."
Darryl Byrd, who works as an urban planning consultant with Centro, is taking on some additional duties until an interim or permanent replacement for DiGiovanni is found.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg called for a review of all the City's contracts with nonprofits and non-governmental organizations soon after the embezzlement was revealed. This was about two weeks after the Tricentennial Commission's Chief Executive Officer Edward Benavides stepped down amid revelations of mismanagement of the San Antonio's 300th anniversary celebration.
The forensic audit into Centro is expected to cost the City upward of $50,000, Sculley said, and City staff is in conversation with a firm to carry it out. Centro has hired RSM, formerly Padgett Stratemann & Co.
"There's no evidence of this being related to the PID money," Sculley said. "It’s all private money."
That's likely because the PID has much stricter standards for financial reporting, Sculley said, and falsifications would have been much easier to detect.
Before he learned of Henderson's background check, Nirenberg said Friday in an interview with the Rivard Report, Centro's leadership “needs to get back to the core of their organization and in many ways press the refresh button.”
The revelation of Henderson's criminal past "only further underscores what I’ve asked for with regards to City-created NGOs [non-governmental organizations],” Nirenberg said Sunday.
"When we commit to some sort of operational support and it operates as an NGO essentially, it should have standards for oversight that people would expect from an organization created by the City,” he added.
The Tricentennial Commission, a local government corporation, was created by City Council under former Mayor Ivy Taylor in 2015.
Former Mayor Julián Castro, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, Don Frost, president of the San Antonio region for Frost Bank, and Jack Spector, president of Hixon Properties, founded Centro Partnership in 2010. (Centro's various functions were founded independently over the past decades, but were consolidated in 2013.)
"In my view for Centro 2.0 – or whatever it will be called – I want closer coordination with the priorities of the City,” Nirenberg said. "[The City and Centro] cannot be working in two separate spheres as it relates to revitalization of the urban core."
Those priorities include transportation, the growth of the UTSA Downtown Campus, and the need for affordable housing, he said Friday, adding that he wants to make sure "the importance of the Centro mission is not lost even amid all this controversy.”
But Centro's importance is long lost when it comes to Bexar County, according to Wolff.
"We dropped our financial contributions about three years ago," Wolff said in a telephone interview Sunday. "We just didn't feel like they were representing our interests or doing a very good job."
Wolff said Centro's two main functions – management of the PID and downtown advocacy – should be "split up. It's not a helpful thing to have a political action group lobbying people, but at the same time taking taxpayer money."
Wolff said he has spoken with the mayor about these concerns.
"We got out of it for that reason," Wolff said, explaining why the County stopped supporting Centro. "We never did have a good relationship with Centro, so we did drop out, and glad we did, but not for that [embezzlement] reason."
But Wolff and DiGiovanni have a storied past. They've disagreed on elements of the proposed streetcar plan that voters shot down in 2014 and clashed when Centro delayed the release of a study it commissioned on potential locations for a local baseball stadium, according to several sources, among other public and private disputes.
Asked who is responsible for the scandal, Wolff said, "The CEO."
DeBerry acknowledged that the scandal represents a significant bump in the road for Centro, but added that the remaining employees – now 13 – are still hard at work.
"Yes, there was one rogue employee who decided to act in her own self-interest," she said, but there is a "very passionate, young staff of individuals who are really committed to the mission."
No Centro members have withdrawn their membership, she added.
Paula Owen, president of Southwest School of Art who sits on Centro's advisory board, echoed DeBerry's optimism.
"The board feels that Centro has a very important role to play for San Antonio, so in addition to what've been trying to do, now we're playing catch-up ball," Owen said.
One of the board's most important accomplishments has been to expand people's perception of how important downtown is to the entire city of San Antonio, she said, in terms of its tax base, cultural amenities, and vibrancy.
"It was not on people's radar screen," she said. "I think expanding that understanding throughout the community has been one of our biggest accomplishments." That's one of our main missions "for the betterment of the entire city, not just for the betterment of downtown."
Editor-in-Chief Beth Frerking contributed to this report.