Thursday, March 29, 2007

Lack of oversight made it easy for staff to label personal expenditures a group home expense

Genesis juror dismissed
Man critical of prosecutors let go for financial reasons
Lopez, Pablo. Fresno Bee, March 13, 2007.

Mar. 13--Lawyers decided Monday to dismiss a juror who had criticized the prosecution in the trial of two sisters accused of embezzling $500,000 from the Genesis group home and foster care agency.

Judge William Kent Hamlin agreed with the lawyers' stipulation that the juror will suffer financial hardship if he continued in the trial of Elaine Bernard, chief executive officer of Genesis, and Carol Dela Torre, the nonprofit's clinical director. The male juror was replaced with a female alternate, whom Hamlin chose at random.

There are now eight men and four women on the panel and three alternates as the trial enters its eighth week of testimony in Fresno County Superior Court. Bernard, 47, and Dela Torre, 46, are accused of using business checks and American Express corporate credit cards to skim $500,000 from Genesis between 1996 and 2001, and squandering the taxpayer money on vacations and shopping sprees.

The sisters have pleaded not guilty to a 17-count indictment on charges of theft, embezzlement and tax evasion. The dismissed juror sent a letter to the judge last week, saying the prosecution "has wasted a huge amount of my time and taxpayers' money on insignificant details, repetitive examination and allegations of wrongdoing by someone that is not on trial." He also told Hamlin that he needed to travel to Mississippi to take care of hurricane damage that destroyed his former home there and that he has paid in advance for a cruise with his wife in May.

Hamlin initially ruled that the juror had not given an adequate reason as to why he could not wait until after the trial to take care of his personal affairs. The judge also said it was "a close call" to keep the juror because of his strong feelings toward the prosecution.

Monday morning, Bernard's lawyer, Roger Nuttall, made a motion to dismiss the juror because he appeared visibly upset when the judge decided to keep him on the panel. Dela Torre's lawyer, W. Scott Quinlan, as well as prosecutors Regina Leary and Michael Elder, agreed to dismiss the juror.

Afterward, Gwendolyn Rogers-Lee, director of security for American Express, testified that Bernard opened a corporate credit card account for Genesis in May 1991. As the primary account holder, Bernard received monthly credit card statements, was responsible for paying the credit card bill, and determined which employees could use corporate credit cards, Rogers-Lee said.

Over the years, Rogers-Lee said, American Express contacted Genesis about its high volume of use of the corporate credit cards and because the nonprofit had many credit cards replaced. For example, by 1996, Bernard's ex-husband, Rene Bernard, a former handyman for Genesis, had possessed nine different American Express credit cards, Rogers-Lee said. Genesis employees seemed annoyed by the American Express inquiries, Rogers-Lee said.

Stuart H. Harden, a certified public accountant and certified fraud examiner, testified that Genesis could easily be victimized because "there was very little oversight of Ms. Bernard by the board." Harden testified that he viewed thousands of Genesis business documents including American Express statements, store receipts and bank statements.

Using a slide show, he showed jurors how Bernard made personal purchases with an American Express corporate credit card and used Genesis money to pay the credit card bill. Bernard then marked her personal expenditures in Genesis accounting documents as a group home or business expense, Harden said. His testimony will continue today.


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