Former Lake Tahoe Humane Society director denies embezzlement allegations
Lake Tahoe Humane Society’s executive director Niki Congero has been fired for allegedly embezzling thousands of dollars from the nonprofit — a claim her attorney says is untrue. An investigation into the allegation, which was brought to the attention of South Lake Tahoe Police Department by the organization’s board of directors in March, is currently underway.
According to Lake Tahoe Humane Society board member Sue Pritchett, the board found out something was amiss when the bank called to notify them about “irregular activity.”
Pritchett could not disclose how much money was missing, but did note that the police “are continuing to find more” as they delve into the Tahoe Humane Society’s records. Fellow board member Kim Stephenson and chair Lorna Lefler could not be reached for comment.
Humane Society office manager Judy Brown said the organization is limited in what it can say due to the ongoing investigation, but released a statement on behalf of the board of directors.
“In early March of this year during the course of internal checks and balances it came to the attention of the board of directors certain potential irregularities may have occurred concerning our financial status. The board took immediate action to secure the integrity of the organization and initiated an investigative process that included notifying the proper legal authorities,” reads the statement.
“The board is confident that the proper steps have been taken to insure the future wellbeing of the organization … As we have been there for all of you in your times of need, we humbly ask that you assist and support us now in our time of need.”
Brown confirmed that Liz Maul, the nonprofit’s education director, will be let go on April 30 because the organization cannot afford to pay her. She also noted that the spay and neuter program has been temporarily suspended.
Rush to judgment
Congero, who took over as executive director in 2013, was advised by her lawyer Adam Spicer to not make a statement to the press. He spoke on her behalf.
“I’m confident these allegations are going to be proven untrue … I’ve seen [Niki] pour her heart and soul into the Humane Society. She has greatly improved the financial situation over there, which is what the actual truth is, and she’s expanded the services they offer in the time she was there,” Spicer told the Tribune.
“ … We are very confident that the facts are clear here that the board just really mismanaged the money, and we are looking forward to vindicating her.”
Spicer said that since Lake Tahoe News broke the story on April 20, Congero has received “threatening phone calls and actions as well.”
“It’s a real shame everyone in the community rushes to judgment,” he added.
According to SLTPD spokesman Lt. Shannon Laney, no formal charges have been made against Congero yet.
“Embezzlement cases take a long time to investigate because there are records to get and search warrants to get,” said Laney. “Nobody has been arrested yet.”
It is unknown if the board performed a background check prior to hiring Congero. Public court documents, however, point to money troubles for Congero and her husband Arthur.
From 2006 to 2012, the couple filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy four times, according to court records. In all four instances, the cases were dismissed due in part to the Congero’s failure to make payments. All four cases stated the nature of the debt was “consumer/non-business,” according to court documents.
At the time of their first filing, the Congeros claimed $535,860 in estimated assets and $579,640 in estimated debts, according to court documents. In another Chapter 13 filing in 2008, they claimed $297,790 in estimated assets and $599,933 in estimated debt.
Despite the investigation, the Lake Tahoe Humane Society is moving forward with its 50th anniversary party, which is scheduled for Friday, May 12, at Harveys Hard Rock Café. Tickets for the event are $60 with all proceeds going to the nonprofit.
A Go Fund Me page with a goal of $10,000 has been set up and shared on Facebook with the community by a local resident, but so far only $400 has been raised. Many commenters said they would not make donations until it has been determined that there was no involvement or negligence on the part of the Humane Society’s board of directors.
According to an industry expert, cases of embezzlement at nonprofits happen more than most realize.
“It’s more common than people think or get to hear about because it often gets swept under the rug because the charity doesn’t want the bad publicity and to have people be less trustful in sending their money,” explained Daniel Borochoff, founder and president of Charity Watch, which rates and evaluates charities for donors.
“With nonprofits you have a lot of really good-hearted, well-intentioned people that care dearly about the program, in this case, caring for animals, but unfortunately they let it slide as far as the oversight, administration and internal controls.”
Ryan Hoffman contributed to this report.