Iris Dimmick / Rivard Report
“The case is still under investigation and no arrest has been made,” wrote San Antonio Police Department spokeswoman Romana Lopez in an email to the Rivard Report on Monday. A spokeswoman for the District Attorney’s Office also said there are no updates on the case.
Centro leaders say they know who stole an estimated $260,000 and faked an audit to cover their tracks: Alicia Henderson, who has a criminal record. But no official action has yet been taken – at least publicly – as the San Antonio Police Department continues to investigate with the help of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Centro’s attorney, Michael Bernard, declined to comment on whether there were negotiations underway with Henderson about paying back the stolen funds. In general, restitution can impact how prosecutors proceed with cases of embezzlement, said a law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of not being identified.
“It’s not complicated in the sense that we know [money] was taken and we know who it was taken by,” Bernard said. The complication comes out of finding the full extent of the damage done. The City hired firm KPMG to carry out its own forensic audit.
“We are in the process of trying to get the books together,” Bernard said Monday. $260,000 is the estimate so far, but “we’re still looking.”
Centro CEO Pat DiGiovanni stepped down after the embezzlement was exposed in late November 2017. Though so far there is no evidence to indicate he was involved, Bernard said, DiGiovanni said at the time that he felt obligated as the leader of the nonprofit to step down. The embezzlement – which involved a fake auditor, website, and associated documents – did not likely effect monies from Centro’s public improvement district (PID), rather private money raised to support the downtown advocacy organization, Bernard said.
When asked about conversations between him and Henderson’s attorney regarding a possible pay-back plan for the former Centro office manager, Bernard declined to comment.
The total cost of the audit to Centro has yet to be determined, he said, but “it won’t be cheap.” The City capped its own audit expense at $50,000.
Though the decision would be up to the district attorney’s office to press charges in this case, Bernard, “I can’t imagine that there would not be” a criminal case filed. “I think we’re talking about weeks, not months.”
Trish DeBerry, Centro board chair-elect, said she hopes the investigation concludes within two to four weeks.
Asked if Centro plans on getting its money back, DeBerry said, “Absolutely … some sort of restitution would be in order.”
That could be through criminal or civil legal action, Bernard said, but “it’s too early to make that determination, we’ll have to see how things break out.”
Centro did not perform a background check before hiring Henderson – a mistake that won’t be repeated, DeBerry said when it was revealed Henderson had been convicted of at least one felony in the past. The next priority after the investigation is to find a full-time certified public accountant, she said, and a new CEO.
Local developer David Adelman, who serves on the Centro PID board, said generally he’s not surprised the investigation has taken so long.
“It’s a mountain of information,” Adelman said. “It’s not as simple as probably people think.”
Regardless, the work and mission of Centro has not been deterred, he said. “From my perspective, I’m determined to see it through.”
While some in the political world may say it’s time for Centro to go, the business and property owners downtown haven’t been asking for their money back, he said, rather “They say ‘What can I do to help?'”
Adelman also owns commercial and residential projects downtown.
“It takes probable cause to charge and arrest [someone] … but it takes ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ to convict them,” Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood told the Rivard Report in an interview before the holidays. LaHood said he could not speak to the specifics of the Centro case – as no charges have been filed with his office, but that forensic accounting cases can be especially hard to prove and prosecute.
Financial records and accounting practices are hard to wade through, LaHood said, “think about having to explain it to a jury of your peers. … It’s easy to get lost in numbers.”
Law enforcement and the legal system can’t “go forward with a sound bite or part of the story,” he added. They have to consider the “totality of the circumstances.”
Mayor Ron Nirenberg did not respond to a request for comment on Monday. But in early December Nirenberg told the Rivard Report he hopes “that the investigation is done thoroughly and that justice is delivered with regard to crime that was committed.”
As for the future of Centro, Nirenberg said its leadership needs “to get back to the core of their organization and in many ways press the ‘refresh’ button.
“What I want them to do is really go back to basics and rally around the original mission of Centro – which is to advocate for and communicate the importance the urban core to the future of San Antonio,” he said last month.
Along those lines, Centro continues to manage programming and initiatives aimed at boosting downtown growth.
“The attitude and outlook as far as the staff is concerned is very positive,” she said. “[Henderson’s actions] are disappointing but the organization needs to move forward.”