New details: FBI probes United Way’s finances

Board directors at United Way of Santa Rosa have told the charity’s outside auditor to assist the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which began looking into the organization’s finances earlier this month.

The nonprofit’s federal tax records examined by a reporter indicate that while its donations and grants had been dwindling between 2014 and 2016—the only periods for which reports are available—the salaries of its half-dozen employees rose sharply.

That pattern is part of why the charity’s board recently ordered an outside audit and it’s an issue that the FBI has been notified about, the Navarre Press has learned.

The United Way reopened its Milton office about two hours after FBI agents visited there on Oct. 4 to confiscate certain financial documents. There haven’t been any arrests, but the charity’s board has put three of its six employees on paid leave, including Executive Director Guy Thompson—former mayor of Milton.

Thompson couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

An FBI spokeswoman in Jacksonville responded by email that her agency has no comment “at this time.”

Kyle Holley, the United Way’s director of gifts and grants, has been temporarily put in charge of the organization by the board as acting administrator, he said.

“We are continuing day-to-day operations, which means we’re trying to help people in need,” Holley said.

The other two United Way employees put on leave until this matter is cleared up are Karen Norton, who is listed on the charity’s website as its internal accountant, and Katie Leigh Thompson, the operations and special events coordinator. She is also Guy Thompson’s daughter.

Norton is married to John Norton, the City of Milton’s Parks and Recreation Department director. The couple live across the street from Guy Thompson on Wisteria Drive in Milton.

Neither Karen Norton nor Katie Thompson could be reached for this article.

Despite the Milton-based charity’s strong connections to that city, current Mayor Wesley Meiss said the investigation isn’t connected to the municipality.

“It’s unfortunate for the Thompson family and for the city,” said Meiss. “We look forward to this matter being cleared up and moving forward.”

Still, the probe could have political implications in Milton, where Meiss is running for re-election against former city attorney Heather Lindsay, an ally of Thompson, who lost a contentious race against Meiss four years ago in a bid to hold on to his position as mayor.

The Pensacola accounting firm of Warren Averett was named the United Way’s auditor last month, before it was known that the FBI probe had started, Holley said.

This newspaper contacted several volunteer board members of United Way Santa Rosa but all declined to comment about the investigation except Randy Jorgenson, who works as planning director for the City of Milton.

“I’m troubled and I’m concerned,” Jorgenson said. But he cautioned against drawing conclusions about the charity’s issues until “the people who are handling this finish their work.”

The charity’s volunteer board of directors is a virtual who’s who of Santa Rosa County leadership, including School Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick and L.L. “Bubba” Drinkard, chief deputy of the Santa Rosa Property Appraiser’s Office.

“It’s going to be tough,” said Holley. “It’s always tough when you look at yourself.”

In a prepared statement released by United Way spokeswoman Pamela Holt, who is also a paid public information officer for the City of Milton, the charity said it is “committed to transparency and accountability in reference to stewardship of funds entrusted to us by our many generous donors.”

As of last week, most donors are continuing their support, Holley said.

Where the money goes

From 2014 to 2016, the charity’s donations had dwindled as total salaries of its half-dozen employees rose sharply, according to the nonprofit’s federal tax reports.

In 2014, the United Way of Santa Rosa paid salaries of $114,194 to five employees—which was about 18 percent of its $621,294 in donations and grants.

In 2015, the charity paid $148,363 to seven employees—which was 30 percent of its $497,697 in donations and grants.

But in 2016, the last year for which figures are available, United Way of Santa Rosa paid $199,188 to five employees—equal to a whopping 93 percent of its $214,081 in donations and grants.

Specific salaries of particular employees aren’t listed on the tax forms. This newspaper has requested a breakdown of those wages from United Way officials.

Among the community causes that receive United Way funding are The ARC of the Emerald Coast; Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Northwest Florida; and Bridges out of Poverty Santa Rosa County.

The organization has one “special project” underway, Holley said: helping 25 families of the Westgate Mobile Home Park in Milton relocate. The dilapidated trailer park has been without running water at times recently after the Santa Rosa Health Department ordered service cut off because of a sewage leak related to its septic system.

Holley estimated that the cost of the Westgate relocations will be about $22,000 when completed.

“I want to stress that we will finish that,” he said.

Holley declined to give a more detailed comment about the FBI investigation, but said, “It will be a very intense audit.”

He added, “As far as I can tell, the organization hasn’t been audited for several years.”

Holley expressed confidence: “I’m very proud of our board. They are continuing to support us and they have a very good plan.”

The charity’s 2016 financial report indicates a roughly one-third decline in its total assets at the end of that year to $428,802.

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