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ECO-woes 

Headaches and skepticism surface in the aftermath of a nonprofit embezzlement case

After nearly two years, Morgan Rafferty the former executive director of the Environmental Center of San Luis Obispo County, is scheduled to finally stand trial for charges that she pilfered tens of thousands of dollars from her own nonprofit group and Mothers For Peace.

- CLEAN UP YOUR ACT: - Despite the criminal charges that have been brought against its former executive director, ECOSLO continues its goals of environmental stewardship. Join the group and hundreds of volunteers on Sept. 17 for Creek and Coastal Cleanup Day. -
  • CLEAN UP YOUR ACT: Despite the criminal charges that have been brought against its former executive director, ECOSLO continues its goals of environmental stewardship. Join the group and hundreds of volunteers on Sept. 17 for Creek and Coastal Cleanup Day.

Rafferty was charged with three felony counts of embezzlement and grand theft in November 2009. According to the charges, filed by the Arroyo Grande Police Department, she skimmed money off the Mothers For Peace books while working as its treasurer.

Mothers For Peace is a national activist group with roots tied in fighting against the Vietnam War, but these days, the local wing is most often associated with its campaign against the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant—and particularly nuclear waste storage and the facility’s safety in the event of a terrorist attack.

At the time the charges were filed, Rafferty was the executive director for ECOSLO, a local nonprofit environmental group that was heavily involved in projects ranging from the Los Osos sewer to solar projects in the California Valley to oil drilling proposed in the Huasna Valley. She was removed from her position by ECOSLO’s board of directors, however, shortly after the criminal investigation began. ECOSLO’s public voice dropped to near silence after her departure.

According to court records, ECOSLO’s board conducted an internal audit of its finances after learning Rafferty was under investigation for allegedly embezzling funds from Mothers For Peace.

That audit identified an unauthorized pay raise Rafferty gave herself in 2008, bumping her salary from $35,000 per year to $40,000. The audit also showed Rafferty gave herself eight pay checks on top of her regular checks. According to court documents, Rafferty said “she was owed this money from missed paydays in 2006.”

Rafferty didn’t return a call for comment. In a previous interview, she told New Times, “I fully maintain my innocence to these accusations.” An online résumé listed Rafferty as an independent accounting professional.

After Rafferty was pushed out of ECOSLO, the organization underwent a quiet transformation. Staff member Maria Kelly stepped up in responsibility—though not hours or pay—to program coordinator.

“We’re still doing what we’ve always done,” Kelly said. “So we’ve stabilized in the last year, and I think we’re moving forward.”

Kelly is the former vice president of the Los Osos Community Services District who recently resigned amid allegations of a relationship with SLO County Public Works Director Paavo Ogren. SLO County officials are investigating whether there is a relationship and, if so, whether it poses a conflict of interest for Ogren.

ECOSLO board chair Clint Slaughter said there was a rough patch for the organization in the months following Rafferty’s criminal charges. The nonprofit had to shift its focus from outreach and other programs in order to investigate its finances as well as make changes to ensure no one could skim from its bankroll.

“We were doing well monetarily at the time, but this whole thing has changed that,” Slaughter said. “And we’ve really had to restructure and definitely change how we handle finances so nothing like this can ever happen again.”

The Rafferty case has inched through the SLO County Superior Court since it was first filed, constantly getting pushed back rather than going to trial. Rafferty is scheduled for a Sept. 6 trial, but it’s likely to get delayed again, according to the Office of the District Attorney.

Rafferty’s public defender, Linden Mackaoui, didn’t respond to a call for comment.

Although the ECOSLO charges of financial malfeasance are lumped into the case, the original criminal allegations stemmed from concerns by Mothers For Peace after the group began having problems with its bills in mid-2009. According to the charges, Rafferty siphoned more than $33,000 from Mothers For Peace through unauthorized checks.

For example, Rafferty stated in a treasurer’s report that there was $52,433.78 in the Mothers For Peace account in December 2008. However, there was actually only $26,968.96 in the account at the time, according to a police incident report. The Arroyo Grande Police Department also uncovered checks made payable to Rafferty—one such check was written for as much as $13,500—without a receipt or other invoice. The incident report details more than a dozen questionable checks.

Mothers For Peace spokeswoman Jane Swanson told New Times she couldn’t comment on the case, but said in an e-mail response the “DA’s stated goal in all cases of embezzlement of nonprofits is restitution.”

 

News Editor Colin Rigley can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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