Former Nonprofit Execs Plead Guilty to Embezzling Millions

By EGP Staff Report

Three former executives of a once highly respected nonprofit group that provided counseling, job-training and placement to the homeless, unemployed and victims of domestic violence pleaded guilty Tuesday to embezzling millions of dollars from the organization that received varying amounts of financial support over the years from the city and county of Los Angeles.

Sophia Esparza, 65, the former CEO of the Chicana Service Action Center, faces the stiffest penalties under a plea deal with prosecutors. She pleaded guilty to five counts of misappropriating public funds, four counts of embezzlement, two counts of preparing false documentary evidence and one count of filing a false tax return.

Prosecutors said she operated the nearly five-decade-old nonprofit with a bogus board of directors and used embezzled funds for items such as luxury apartments, sports cars, a yacht cruise and season tickets to the Dodgers and Clippers. She is facing six years in prison when she is sentenced Oct. 25.

Meanwhile, Silvia Gutierrez, 71, the former chief financial officer for the group, pleaded guilty to six counts of embezzlement, four counts of misappropriation of public funds and two counts of preparing false documentary evidence. Thomas Baiz, 62, a former vice president of the nonprofit, pleaded guilty to three counts of embezzlement, two counts of misappropriation of public funds and one count of conspiracy to misappropriate public funds.

All three former executives were charged in 2015.

Chicana Service Action Center

A fourth defendant, former employee Michael Lorenzo Tompkins, was charged earlier this year and pleaded no contest to one count of embezzlement, according to the District Attorney’s Office.

Collectively, the four defendants will be ordered to pay $9 million to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services and Community Senior Services, and $1.4  million to the city’s Economic and Workforce Development Department.

Esparza will also have to pay $103,000 to the state Franchise Tax Board, prosecutors said.

Gutierrez is expected to receive a four-year suspended sentence and spend a year on house arrest and five years on probation when she is sentenced Oct. 25. Baiz is facing a three-year suspended sentence, one year in jail and five years probation, along with 500 hours of community service.

Tompkins is facing three years in prison. Baiz and Tompkins are scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 26.

According to prosecutors, Gutierrez used embezzled funds to for personal bonuses, life insurance and personal expenses, while Baiz used the money for loans, vehicles and meals.

In the 1970s, the Chicana Service Action Center empowered women who “had not yet found our voice,” former supervisor Gloria Molina said in 2013, hoping to get her then board colleagues to continue contracting with the nonprofit after it was defunded over billing irregularities, which was said to have been corrected, and all monies owed to the County repaid.

“If they disappear, so will the empowerment of many, many young women,” Molina said at the time. Her motion failed to get a second and died without a vote.

Despite the county’s action, the City of Los Angeles continued to contract with the center for job placement and training services.

In January of this year, Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin issued a report strongly criticizing Economic and Workforce Development Department officials for failing to report the questionable activities involving the nonprofit, and for failing to provide adequate oversight going as far back as 2010. The city, which had contracted with the Chicana Service Action Center for over 25 years, awarded the center a new contract in 2014 to operate its WorkSource Center in Boyle Heights, one of 17 such centers in the city.

The charges shocked and saddened many in the community who had long held the organization in high esteem for its pioneering work to empower Latinas.

A 2015 editorial in this newspaper, called the then allegations “particularly devastating news to the women still alive who decades ago struggled mightily to get the organization off the ground so it could help empower Latinas by giving them job training and other resources as a way out of poverty and sometimes an escape from domestic abuse.”

Multiple readers responded with equal consternation, recounting how years earlier they had benefitted from services offered at the center.

EGP staff writers contributed to this story.

 

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August 17, 2017  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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