Friends of the Volunteer Park Conservatory sue former treasurer for stealing thousands

A happier day at the Conservatory in the summer of 2010 (Image: CHS)

A happier day at the Conservatory in the summer of 2010 (Image: CHS)

The nonprofit group that recently announced a successful multi-million dollar capital campaign to support the Volunteer Park Conservatory is suing its former treasurer alleging that he stole tens of thousands through financial misconduct that could date back three years.

Friends of the Conservatory filed a civil suit against Daniel Celler in King County Superior Court late last month in an effort to recover some portion of the more than $60,000 the organization says the treasurer ripped off.

According to the lawsuit, sometime around December 2012, Celler transferred at least $66,670 into an account that was under his sole control. FOC’s executive director Anthonio Pettit tells CHS that he was unsure how Celler was spending the money, but that an initial investigation showed that he was using it for personal expenses.

Pettit, who became director in April, said the FOC’s operating budget in 2013 was about $100,000.

In March, CHS reported on the group’s announcement that it had reached its goal on a $3.5 million capital campaign to fund a restoration of the 100-year-old Conservatory’s east wing. In a statement on the lawsuit, the group said those funds are safe despite the alleged financial malfeasance. “Money raised for Conservatory capital improvements (Restoration Action Campaign) was handled by the Seattle Parks Foundation as fiscal sponsor,” the statement reads. “These funds are held in a trust and are 100% intact.”

The Friends group went public with the allegations Friday in a letter stating that the organization filed a civil suit against a “long-standing member of the finance team in a trusted position.”

Celler could not be reached for comment. Police are still investigating the allegations.

Pettit tells CHS that Celler became treasurer in 2010 after a brief stint helping with the group’s activities. Pettit said Celler had become distant over the past year and difficult to contact. He was fired from the volunteer position in April after the FOC learned of the transfer to his account.

“We had a lot of discussions about getting him out of that role,” Pettit said. “It turns out, it was for good reason.”

On his Linkedin page, Celler lists his only current job as treasurer of the FOC, which was an unpaid position. Celler’s profile says while at the FOC he “engineered an internal control system to ensure passing audits” for the organization’s recent $3.5 million capital campaign.

According to Pettit, the “bulk” of the alleged fraud dates back to May 2012 when Celler consolidated the non-profit’s bank accounts at BECU and transferred them to one account at Key Bank. Celler then allegedly made himself the sole signatory on the account so no one else at FOC could access it.

Pettit, who was FOC’s board president at the time, said the move raised some eyebrows, but the board was not alarmed.

“We didn’t question it at the time,” Pettit said. “It was within his power to make that call.”

From the new Key Bank account, Pettit said Celler then used a bill paying service that he set up under FOCs name to transfer the funds to a personal account.

According to Pettit, FOC became aware of financial irregularities nearly a year later in April when the FOC board of directors was reviewing a financial report. Celler had labeled an unauthorized transfer of $67,670 as an “investment.”

The complaint states that the board approached Celler about the “investment” in April. Celler allegedly said he would pay the money back, and wired $10,000 back to the FOC. But apparently the payments stopped there. The FOC then brought the issue to Seattle Police and filed the lawsuit soon after.

Pettit said since finding out about Celler’s alleged embezzlement, the FOC has found “shady” financial dealing dating back to 2010 when Celler became treasurer. Pettit wouldn’t say how much money was involved.

According to Pettit, the $3.5 million raised in the FOC’s recent capital campaign was untouched. He also said neither the Conservatory nor the FOC is at risk of closing, but he said the FOC may have to raise new funds to ensure operational budget is available while the FOC tries to recoup its money in court.

According to the complaint, Celler also failed to file financial disclosure form 990 with the IRS in 2011 and 2012. All 501(c)(3) non-profits are required to file the forms annually.

In addition to hiring a forensic accountant, the nonprofit said it is hiring a bookkeeper, creating a three-person approval process for all checks issued.

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13 thoughts on “Friends of the Volunteer Park Conservatory sue former treasurer for stealing thousands

  1. It’s sad somebody would do this. But I really have to wonder what kind of stupidity it takes to misappropriate funds from any kind of charity knowing they’re under more scrutiny and reporting requirements than a regular business.

    • The problem is that many charities are comprised mostly or entirely of volunteers, so often nobody’s paying close attention, and they know it. A few years ago I was asked to step in as treasurer of a local non-profit that had fundraised for LGBT charities for years. A previous treasurer had moved to Portland, changed passwords and signatures, and even activated a credit card in his name which he was charging stuff like his Comcast internet. Luckily it was not secured by our non-profit so we weren’t liable. Then his replacement treasurer failed to file charity certification papers with WA for over 3 years, and didn’t even file Federal Income tax for 4 years. And she was an accountant, even. We were lucky, nobody successfully stole from our group. But a lot of slimeballs get away with crap like this because they know in an all- volunteer group, sometimes nobody’s watching.

  2. Embezzling money from a nonprofit like FOC, knowing how limited their finances are in the first place, is the epitome of selfish behavior. I hope the guy is ashamed, but somehow I doubt he is.

    I also hope that the SPD involvement means that at some point there will be criminal charges.

    • The admission charge is unrelated. The Conservatory is owned and operated by Seattle Parks and Recreation and the fee was mandated by the Seattle City Council. The FOC is the 501(c)3 non-profit which supports the Conservatory, and while partners with Parks, has a completely separate operating budget.

  3. aaargh, this is so frustrating. NPO accounting 101 is: NEVER allow the person doing the books to be a check/bank account signer. Even if it is an all-volunteer organization. And any reputable person in NPO accounting will refuse to be a signer on any accounts.

    Good for FOC for catching this relatively quickly.

      • Lots of NPOs DO have their Treasurer or their finance/accounting person sign checks, but it’s really only ok when the organization is big enough to have another person actually doing the books. That includes the 2nd signature bit – that’s not enough of a control by itself. It really is the first and most important internal control for a nonprofit to make sure the person doing the books does not have signing authority. Check any recent story on NPO misappropriation (Intiman, Bellevue Arts Museum, now FOC) and you’ll see why.

        I’ve been in NPO accounting for many years. I hate seeing non-profits being defrauded by their staff/board – and I’m always amazed when I see large budget organizations who should know better making very simple errors that make it incredibly easy for someone to commit fraud.

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