After 14 months, state police SAAA probe continues
Posted: November 30, 2012
The Winchester Star
WINCHESTER — The Virginia State Police investigation into financial irregularities discovered at the Shenandoah Area Agency on Aging (SAAA) in 2011 continues 14 months after it began.
Email correspondence with Corinne Geller, public relations director for the VSP, indicated that state police accountants completed their review of the SAAA’s finances in June and sent the information to the Warren County Commonwealth’s Attorney “for review and prosecutorial decision.”
Geller later clarified her comments to say that the “initial” review was completed in June but work on the case continues.
“Since that time,” she wrote, “there have been a succession of meetings between the [c]ommonwealth’s [a]ttorney and the case agent as part of the continuing investigative process.”
County prosecutors will decide whether criminal charges will be filed against anyone, Geller indicated.
Warren County Commonwealth’s Attorney Brian M. Madden said late Thursday afternoon that the state police haven’t turned over a completed investigation to his office. At this point, he said, he does not have enough information to take any case forward.
Geller wrote that the state police have spent approximately 525 hours on the case since beginning the probe in September 2011 and classify it as “active and in an ongoing status.”
The SAAA is an agency that provides services to senior citizens in six localities. Its headquarters are in Front Royal.
SAAA officials learned of the agency’s financial problems following an investigation into the August 2011 discovery of 81 unmailed checks to vendors totaling nearly $265,000 in a staff member’s office. The agency did not have enough money in its bank accounts to cover those checks.
The revelations from that probe led to the September firing of Helen Cockrell, the agency’s president and CEO, and Jim Shaffer, its finance director.
The dismissals came on the heels of a report on a Virginia Department for the Aging preliminary investigation that alleged that Cockrell splurged on travel at times when the agency couldn’t pay its bills and might have defrauded the organization.
Cockrell filed a civil lawsuit against the SAAA, claiming that it breached her contract because it did not have cause to fire her and that she was owed back leave pay.
The SAAA filed a countersuit against her, alleging that she had embezzled money from and defrauded the agency of as much as $20,000. Cockrell dropped her breach-of-contract claim less than 10 days after the countersuit was filed, but her request for back leave pay was maintained.
In August, both sides agreed to settle the suits with no money changing hands. Cockrell and her husband, Stanley, subsequently filed for bankruptcy.
Ann McIntyre, the SAAA’s director of development, was terminated at the same time as Cockrell and Shaffer.
In a civil lawsuit she filed against the agency, McIntyre claimed that she was fired for violating the SAAA’s policy regarding credit-card use. SAAA officials have said she was not tied to the unmailed checks problem.
At the October meeting of the SAAA’s board of directors, staff and board members said they think a multimonth, significant drop in donations to the agency was linked to the fact that no one had been held accountable for its financial problems.
John Hudson, chairman of the SAAA’s board of directors, has said that board members dropped their civil case against Cockrell to avoid running up legal bills that might not be recovered even if they won because she might lack the money necessary to pay damages if they were awarded.
“[People] haven’t seen anything that says, ‘This is what happened, and this is who to blame,’” said Bob Haas, the agency’s director of transportation. “The closure rests with the legal action that still needs to be taken.”
Board member Teresa Strohmeyer expressed frustration that no charges had been filed more than a year after the problem was discovered.
“I don’t understand why no one’s being prosecuted,” she said.
Hudson said alleged embezzlement was “just a small piece” of the financial problems.
“Most of it was mismanagement and the way the accounting system was set up,” he said before calling that system a “convoluted mess.”
The SAAA’s financial personnel, systems and practices have been overhauled, and its officials say safeguards are in place to prevent many of the spending problems uncovered in investigations and financial audits.
Jonathan Price, the SAAA’s director of financial operations, has pledged transparency regarding the agency’s fiscal matters and said any potential large donor is welcome to review its finances.
The SAAA assists seniors in Winchester and Frederick, Clarke, Shenandoah, Warren and Page counties. Its services include operating an active living center in each locality, meal delivery, transportation, respite care, and Medicaid and Medicare assistance.
— Contact Vic Bradshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org