Foreword: For those unfamiliar with the story, ABATE of Colorado (hereafter referred to as ABATE) reported their State Coordinator to law enforcement on suspicion of theft and fraud. ABATE has been suffering financially and answers have been difficult to find. Now, we have an insider’s perspective. For past coverage, please see:
This is important to all riders in Colorado as ABATE of Colorado has, and if it survives, will continue to represent them legislatively whether they are members or not. Riders, as all citizens should be involved legislatively, or at least be a part of an organization who monitors our governing body.
Please subscribe for a follow up interview with our insider, Mrs. Craig, and continued coverage.
By Deb Craig
I joined ABATE of Colorado in February, 1990 and have maintained active, continuous membership since. Over those years, I served in various capacities as district legislative affairs officer, State Legislative Affairs Officer and State Coordinator (July 1999 through December 2003). I became an employee of ABATE of Colorado and worked in the office on the Rider Education side of the organization part time until my resignation from the Board of Directors. I then became a full time employee and remained so until November 1, 2014.
This expose is not intended to place blame for the (some say) demise of ABATE on any one individual. Indeed, no one individual can logically be held responsible. Rather, I hope to answer some questions that people have asked over the past months and to explain how ABATE went from what we once were to what we are now.
Prior to 2004, all Board positions were volunteer, including that of State Coordinator. All board members were elected by the membership. Membership numbers remained stable, sometimes growing especially in those years we faced political threats. ABATE was a strong presence in the Colorado political arena – we worked campaigns, lobbied our legislators and were a force to be reckoned with.
This doesn’t mean there weren’t issues. During the 1990s, the organization worked through divisive issues such as the infamous Lawsuit and the Lemon Law debate, but none of those had the disastrous effect that our current situation has had on the organization. Tempers flared, but we remained a Brotherhood. Fund raisers and events were heavily attended and volunteers were at the ready.
A few months into my [State Coordinator] successor’s tenure, the Board of Directors decided that position should be a paid employee position, appointed/hired by the Board of Directors. I should mention that this had been discussed from time to time during the three previous state coordinators’ terms, but had been rejected [mostly] due to the costs involved. We simply couldn’t afford it and some even felt it went against our organization’s mission. However, at this time, our training was at peak and the organization was financially stable – bordering on flush. At one point, we had half a million in savings and our income was growing.
The original intent for making the State Coordinator a full time paid position was to have a presence in the corporate office to oversee the daily activities of the organization. It was originally discussed that the training side of the organization would pay the expenses for a certain period of time and then the rights/membership side would take over. This never happened and the policy was actually changed to reflect this – the membership side of the organization could not support (on a long term basis) the cost of a full-time employee.
Over the next few years, more training companies were established in Colorado and competition became fierce. ABATE’s training numbers had reached their peak and were starting to decline. We weren’t [yet] in financial trouble but this is where one could say the problems started.
ABATE had four full-time employees: the State Coordinator, the Rider Ed Manager, Operations Manager and Office Manager. There was, during the peak, a part-time employee as well but that position lasted only a couple of years – as training numbers decreased, there became less of a need for another employee.
Coincidentally, at roughly the same time that training numbers – and, as a result, income – began to decline, the Board of Directors began to become what one can only describe as complacent. After all, they had a full-time employee doing their work for them. They began to rely more heavily on the State Coordinator to handle all aspects of the organization and oversight became minimal. Membership numbers began to decline, as did attendance at events and fundraisers. Districts began to fold as older members began to tire of their volunteer responsibilities and newer members refused to step up to the plate.
The Board of Directors and the State Coordinator did attempt to remedy the problem by forming coalitions with other organizations and ABATE did gain some new members. However, as often happens in a volunteer organization, there was a lot of talk but no action by many of the new members, as well as some of the old. Committees were volunteered for, ideas were proposed but the work to implement those ideas was scantily performed or, in fact, often never performed at all. Other ideas were rejected outright with the excuse(s) that things are different now, the old ways won’t work, or even that the person bringing the idea was too controversial.
In about 2009, ABATE began sponsoring races and racers at a significant cost. Approximately $30,945.00 was spent between 2009 and 2014 hosting barbeques at the races, providing trophies, sponsoring race classes and racers. There was even a new ABATE Racing product line developed. Unfortunately, much of that product remains unsold in boxes in our storage unit.
We had several racers indicate a desire to become instructors. At the direction of the State Coordinator (with, we assume, the approval of the Board of Directors), most of these were given the course at either no or reduced cost as a ‘trade-out’ for other work – again, much of which was never done. Only a few of those ABATE donated a class to actually ever taught for ABATE and only a very few of those are still active instructors.
You might ask why this is relevant. Of all the rumors, complaints and other half-truths being flung about by those attempting to undermine ABATE, some focus on specific incidents such as the son of an employee who failed the class, alluding to the expense of training that one individual. I submit the previous statements to show that there was more than one individual’s training that resulted in a financial loss for ABATE. (Training does incur expenses for the organization and there is an expectation that the individual trained will contribute to ABATE’s income. As you can see, in several cases – not just one — this didn’t happen.)
If you remember, earlier in this document, I indicated income was declining. In approximately 2013, ABATE began dipping into the savings in order to cover daily expenses. This went on through the next two years as income continued to fall. Since I was not attending board meetings, I can’t say why no one noticed it since the account balances were reported on every board meeting agenda. I can only speculate that the majority of the Board of Directors remained in a state of complacency and assumed the State Coordinator would find a way to remedy the situation. In any event, it is obvious that some – not all; there was dissention from time to time – had come to trust and rely on the State Coordinator to the detriment of the organization.
Fast forward to the present. By 2014, ABATE’s savings had been totally depleted. Income had declined to the point of being almost non-existent during the fall and winter months. Membership numbers were at a low we hadn’t seen since the early 1990s. For the past year or so, we (the staff) had been discussing ways to mitigate the circumstances with suggestions such as moving several (if not all) employees to part time status, temporarily suspending benefits including company provided health insurance and 401k matches. End of year raises and bonuses hadn’t been given/received for several years and instructor pay was restructured, involving a decrease in pay for many.
I believe it was 2013 when the issue of the advertising budget began, although it wasn’t discussed at a Board meeting – or anywhere else besides the office – until about September 2014, when it was used to try to create a scapegoat by those who supported the [then] terminated State Coordinator. I assure any of you who care to know, no advertising was purchased without the knowledge of the State Coordinator. As I have stated, finances (and anything related to) were discussed at length in the office. I truly believe it was an intense effort by all involved to create an upturn in ABATE’s growing financial crisis and it got out of hand. By that I mean, the budget wasn’t being tracked closely enough by the Board or the State Coordinator so the spending went way over budget. By the time anyone realized there was a problem, or cared to address it, the damage had been done. In my experience in the office, I can say with all honesty, no expenses were created without discussion. In fact, the first discussion of the issue did not occur until, as I said, it was brought up to be used as a defense in the termination of the State Coordinator.
Another issue to be addressed is found in a Facebook post on ABATE’s page by a former Rider Ed Director on January 30, 2015:
“The Board failed to take effective action, despite these warnings and an organized effort from 2 former state coordinators and ABATE’s Director of Rider Education. This organized effort put pressure on Howard who then manipulated a malleable Board with lies and quarter truths in a successful effort to fire the DRE, who was ABATE’s best chance at re-establishing financial stability.”
It’s the last part of that last sentence I have a problem with. The former DRE referred to was in the office and involved in the various aspects of the organization’s business, including the budgetary process, throughout this ongoing crisis. There is no evidence – in fact, there is evidence to the contrary – that this individual was the ‘best chance at re-establishing financial stability.’ As for further information on this matter, I refer back to my comment that the purpose of this expose is not to lay blame on any one individual. Therefore, I will refrain from addressing certain particulars of many of these issues, except to say here that this individual, while contributing, was by no means the largest part of the problem. I just don’t believe he could have turned things around, having seen no indication of such inclination during the past several years of his employment. I can state with certainty that termination of that individual had been discussed at board meetings (with previous Board members) in prior years and so was not the result of a newly organized effort by the Board that was sitting at the time of his termination. I will also state that in the past years, Howard had defended the DRE to the Board but the Board eventually determined that Howard had inadequate control over that employee. In other words, this was not a new problem but one that had been growing over time.
Another issue arises from a statement in the Dandooligan Press also dated January 30, 2015 (the author, by the way, in his January 26th blog, suggests it is “our duty to hold our organizations accountable” [my emphasis] yet is not a member of ABATE but presumes to have the ‘scoop’)
“The State Treasurer starts a financial investigation Sept 4th but requests a loan extension Sept 9th.”
This never happened as was written in that blog or in other letters and comments. The State Treasurer never asked for a loan extension and, in fact, when asked by the State Coordinator if the loan were extended would we be able to make the payments through the winter, replied “I don’t know”. The State Coordinator took it upon herself to extend that loan in order to ensure that employees would be paid in a timely manner. I cannot say for certain that the board was, or was not, informed of the extension prior to the request. I do know for certain that, at the time the loan was extended, no member of the staff knew that the State Coordinator would be terminated, or that charges would be filed against her. It was not until September 17th that the initial decision to suspend the State Coordinator was made, and that decision was based upon statements made by the State Coordinator in the presence of five individuals, of which I was one. That decision was overturned at the September 20th Board meeting after a committee was formed to perform an investigation into the allegations. While it is true that she wasn’t allowed to be in the office during the investigation, it is also true that the committee attempted to make arrangements to meet her at the office on more than one occasion, but she was not available at those times so committee members met her at her home.
I will further state that, in my presence and the presence of others, the State Coordinator was warned by a former state coordinator of the dangers of placing herself in a position of personal liability concerning loans for the organization. I feel certain that her failure to heed that warning was based on good intentions by taking care of the employees of the organization, however, there are loans available to non-profits that have low interest rates and hold no one individual liable for the payment. I can only wonder why these options were not investigated or pursued. The only plausible explanation is that the crisis was allowed to continue too long and it became necessary to beat the clock, leaving no time for additional research.
From the same blog:
“It is also rather curious that the State Treasurer resigned 5 days after Ms. Howard was suspended in an attempt to avoid all implications and possible connections.”
Actually, not all all curious. I, in fact, encouraged her to resign due to the treatment she received at the hands of Ms. Howard’s supporters on the Board of Directors. In clear violation of the premises of whistle blowers’ protections
“The underlying purpose of whistleblower protection laws is to allow employees to stop, report, or testify about employer actions that are illegal, unhealthy, or violate specific public policies.”
the State Treasurer, at the September 20th Board meeting was chastised and interrogated for her part in discovering the inconsistencies in the account and may as well have been accused of being responsible for the fraudulent checks. The board members involved later stated they were in shock which, they claim, accounted for their behavior. However, it is more than four months later and certain Board members persist in their persecution of the then State Treasurer. (I would have thought the shock would have had time to wear off.)
Likewise, the accountant for ABATE was accused of being in ‘cahoots’ with the State Treasurer based on their friendship. The Board wanted to know why the accountant didn’t catch the improprieties. It must be noted that the account’s contract did not include performing an audit. She was hired solely to provide tax support and advice. In fact, efforts by some to have an audit performed were met with stringent opposition and then rejected by the Board. Therefore, she had no reason to do an investigation into the Quickbooks entries and took them at face value. I also supported her decision to withdraw her contract.
Note: I have officially resigned as an employee for much the same reasons. There are those on the Board of Directors I can’t trust to hold the best interests of the organization in priority and, until they do, I am pessimistic about ABATE’s chances of recovery from what is becoming a fiasco.
Remember, some years ago, the Board mandated changes to ABATE’s accounts. In the course of those changes, control of the account that was the focus of the issue was retained solely by the State Coordinator. It was on her computer – and only her computer — and she made all the entries. She supplied the numbers to the State Treasurer for her bi-monthly reports. What may or may not be common knowledge is that the Quickbooks entries do not match the names of the entity or individual the checks were actually written to, nor were the checks deposited by those entities or individuals. There is the defense that the system crashed and she had to try to recreate the account in Quickbooks using bank statements. Since the investigating committee was able to obtain copies of the actual checks online, why couldn’t the State Coordinator do the same for the purpose of recreating the register instead of just ‘guessing’?
On more than one occasion, the accountant had advised all staff to use cash only as an absolute necessity. ABATE’s Financial Policy includes a statement stating the same and outlines the procedure for accounting in the event it does become a necessity. In considering Ms. Howard’s actions and defense, she either ignored the advice and organizational policy, and failed to keep accurate records, or the allegations of theft were true. In any event, a reasonable mind has no option but to realize that, if the allegations of theft were false, the allegations of mismanagement were not.
ABATE moved its office in September, 2014 and things were definitely in a state of disorganization. However, during the internal investigation boxes were thoroughly searched for receipts or other documentation that might lay the allegations to rest. Most were never found in the office, but were apparently provided by Ms. Howard as she was keeping them at her home. Now back in the day, when we didn’t have an office or when State Coordinators and Treasurers were volunteers, it was common practice for some documentation to be kept at that officer’s home. However, we had an office. The State Coordinator was a paid employee and had her own office. We had file cabinets and files for documentation.
Perhaps, rather than focusing on the dubious facts posted by former disgruntled employees or contractors, and postings of friends and relatives of the accused concerning the “curious case of ABATE’s ghost treasurer”, we should instead be asking the questions:
- Why would a paid employee be keeping records of transactions for the organization at her home rather than the corporate office?
- Why would an officer of the Board pay cash for so many transactions when she had (at one time) three business credit cards in her possession and then reimburse herself, especially when cash transactions were strongly discouraged by both ABATE’s accountant and the organizations Financial Policy? Speculations include tax fraud (claiming they were expenses for which she paid out of pocket but not claiming reimbursement), which would also explain why the receipts were at her home rather than in the proper location.
- Why were the reimbursements (or in some cases, pre-imbursements) in whole dollar amounts rather than an actual match to the receipt(s)?
- Why would an individual confess to the allegations in the presence of others (and even confessing to others after the fact, but changing the amounts) because she was ‘in shock’? I’m not sure what I would do when accused of a crime I didn’t commit, but I hardly think confession would be my first choice.
- Although we did occasionally, when the matter was urgent, sign another’s name in an emergency (admittedly not a great business practice but there were times we had only two signers available so one of us would sign for the third – with their knowledge), why would an individual forge two other names on the checks when there were two other signers available in the office? Why would that individual have made those checks payable to herself and deposited them into her personal account? In my mind, that was just asking for trouble. At least I can truthfully say that at no time did I sign another person’s name for my own benefit. I can think of no personal financial emergency that would have buried my sense of self-preservation to the point I would take such a risk.
To date, the charges against Howard in Denver Court have been dismissed due to insufficient evidence (theft) and forgery (because, as stated above, it was not the first time this had been done). Supporters claim victory declaring she has been exonerated and proven innocent. A distinction must be made between the two. Many cases don’t go to trial. District Attorneys and courts have a heavy case load and must perform a triage of sorts concerning which cases will go to trial and which will not. This does not indicate guilt or innocence, only that it was not felt to be a strong enough case.
The dismal truth is, no other State Coordinator in my personal 24-year history with ABATE has caused such division within the organization, but it is true that we cannot place the blame solely on her. There’s enough blame to go around. Unfortunately, the outcome is what happens when the system of checks and balances is removed or ignored. It’s what happens when people – members and board members alike – become complacent and allow one person too much control. It’s what happens when we allow friendship and loyalty to defend the spread of misinformation rather than defending the truth. It’s what happens when we allow ourselves to bury the truth because it is too painful.
If ABATE does survive this crisis, it will be through the tireless efforts of a few, while those of little faith jump ship. After all, this isn’t our first time dealing with a bad situation. A rational person (or, in this case, organization) learns from its mistakes and makes a concerted effort to prevent such situations from recurring.
If ABATE doesn’t survive, the one truth most of us can agree on is that we had one hell of a ride – and, although I regret the circumstances that brought us to this point, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.