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Whistleblower speaks out about alleged embezzlement at Okanagan charity

Whistleblower speaks out about alleged embezzlement at Okanagan charity

A former employee at a local charity believes he lost his job because he found out another employee was allegedly embezzling money, and he couldn’t get on board with a plan to bring the suspected perpetrator back.

Anthony Russo was a director at Kelowna’s Adult and Teen Challenge, which is a faith-based charity that tries to help people struggling with addiction. It operates the Okanagan Men’s Centre.

Back in late November, Russo was told that money had gone missing from the office safe.

Russo went through hours of surveillance video, which he believes shows the charity’s regional director Mark De Koning taking the cash and then shredding the receipt.

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Russo said he pieced together the paper in the shredder to confirm his theory, and showed his bosses the surveillance video.

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“Seeing that was fairly devastating for everyone because [De Koning] was a very trusted employee and one of our top-level executives,” Russo said.

De Koning’s response

De Koning denied the allegations against him.

When reached by phone, De Koning said he didn’t take any money from Teen Challenge.

READ MORE: Two Kelowna women charged with stealing $180K from Okanagan hospice

“That definitely didn’t happen,” he said. “I don’t believe the recordings and videos have been accurately described.”

“There have been no criminal charges that have been laid,” he added.

He referred Global News to the charity’s board of directors, saying that he had signed a confidentiality agreement.

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Back in November, De Koning sent a text message to his boss after he was questioned about the missing cash.

He said some money was sticking out of the safe, and he planned to show it to an employee and ask him to redo it.

“In my hurriedness the money got left in my bag and I didn’t talk with [the employee],” he wrote.

“I had made a mistake on the deposit sheet and that’s why I shredded it.” De Koning also texted.

Allegations of Missing Money

After discovering that some money appeared to be missing, Russo started looking back at other records.

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“More and more as we started to look into this, we started finding more and more evidence of what looked to be a large embezzlement of student rent and donated funds,” he said.

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Russo alleges thousands of dollars are missing from the charity’s firewood program, which collects mostly cash.

He showed Global News texts with somebody involved with donations to the firewood program. The messages appear to indicate the person checked the accounting and found that the donations were lower than expected.

Four years ago, the firewood program brought in about $40,000, Russo said. “And then two years ago, there was a huge drop in the income.”

Russo said he contacted the volunteers who run the program, and they told him that they had still cut the same amount of wood.

READ MORE: Kelowna PAC still struggling after money goes missing

He said there were other areas that appeared to be missing money too.

“Sixteen missing receipts in the four months of receipt books, plus all the missing receipts from the past two years,” he said.

In a text sent to his boss, De Koning wrote that he doesn’t know anything about the other missing money.

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Adult and Teen Challenge won’t confirm how much money is allegedly missing.

Russo was never told an amount, Janalyn Oige, the charity’s executive director, told Global News on the phone.

“There’s no indication that any money that was donated was taken,” she added.

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However, the charity was able to confirm that at least some of the missing funds were taken by De Koning, Russo said.

“Mark [De Koning] has confessed and repented of his harmful actions,” Oige said in an email sent to the charity’s employees.

After the alleged theft

Russo said that after the board of directors found out about the alleged theft, it planned to have De Koning resign but wanted to quickly bring him back as a contractor.

“[Oige] communicated it very clearly that she and the board were united in their decision to forgive Mark and to bring him back right away,” Russo said.

“They’re trying to build a $4-million women’s centre above the men’s centre … and that’s been Mark’s real area of expertise,” Russo added. “There was a fear of loss there for the board.”

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Russo said he was against how quickly the board appeared to want to reintegrate De Koning.

“I was also completely against their attitude of trying to hide the thefts,” Russo said.

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“You can’t just rehire someone in a fundraising position who has just stolen.”

Oige denies that the board had agreed to bring De Koning back, saying no decision had been made.

Russo fired

Russo said that when he couldn’t support De Koning’s immediate return, he was fired instead.

“I couldn’t understand why I was being fired when all I was doing was saying that this was wrong and trying to come up with a different game plan moving forward,” he said.

Russo made an audio recording of his firing. He said he was worried his superiors would try to change the story and not admit to the full scale of thefts.

In the recording, Oige argues with Russo about the reason for his firing. They also disagree about the board’s proposed timeline for bringing De Koning back — Oige denies that it was immediately, and Russo is adamant that he was told De Koning would return quickly.

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In a statement, Oige told Global News: “We decided to part ways with Anthony Russo, as Mr. Russo was of the belief that no restoration plan was acceptable, which is not in accordance with our goals and values as an organization.”

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“When someone asks for forgiveness and mercy, we believe that it is in line with our mission to extend a hand of compassion and forgiveness,” she said.

However, Russo said that he wasn’t completely against De Koning’s return. In a December email to the board, Russo had suggested a one-year reintegration plan.

Restoration Plan

Oige said she consulted with RCMP, and the board ultimately decided not to proceed with legal action against De Koning.

“[The] board of directors has been seeking wisdom and godly counsel to determine a biblical and Christlike way forward in response to the regional director’s transgressions,” Oige said in a message sent after Russo’s firing.

The email also said that De Koning would be allowed to volunteer with the charity after three months if certain terms were met and could be rehired six months later.

READ MORE: Surrey RCMP investigate after thousands of dollars missing from Surrey schools

The restoration plan included several conditions, including repayment.

However, Russo alleges that the timeline for De Koning’s return was stretched out after staff backlash.

“It was communicated very clearly to me that Mark was coming back right away, and it wasn’t until after I had been let go, when I started to make next steps, where they changed their approach,” Russo said. “After that, it was, ‘here’s a six-month reintegration program’.”

Oige denies this.

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She also said the allegation of the misappropriation of funds was taken seriously.

“We acted quickly and appropriately in the circumstances and involved our board directors and the RCMP to determine the appropriate course of action,” she said.

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“When dealing with cash, there has to be a certain amount of trust, and you can’t always be 100 per cent certain because we sell wood, we sell cars, and a lot of that is all done in cash.”

Moving Forward

Oige said more safeguards have been put in place, and she’s hoping to move forward from the incident.

“I think the biggest thing for us is just continuing to offer care. The whole entire crux of our business isn’t about selling wood, isn’t about selling cars, isn’t about having cash, it’s about putting hope within reach of every addict,” she said.

“We believe every person is worth saving, and that’s what we want to keep doing.”

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Russo said he initially struggled with the decision to step forward with the allegations.

“My goal in this is number one, to expose the lies and deception and bring the truth forward,” he said. “And my hope through this is also that it’s going to bring in outside accountability.”

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He’s warning other charities to conduct proper audits, not just an annual financial review, which he said did not catch the alleged theft in this case.

“This was different than a theft from a business or a personal theft,” Russo said. “This was a theft from vulnerable men that were in the program that were giving their money to try and get clean from their addictions.”

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Russo is asking any former students of the recovery centre who e-transferred their rent to any of its directors or staff to share those receipts with police.

“If you sent your rent to anyone other than Teen Challenge B.C., we’re asking that you come forward and share a copy of your e-transfer,” he said.

He believes that the funds may not have been transferred to the charity’s account.

RCMP would not confirm if they are investigating.

No criminal charges have been brought forward.

None of the allegations against De Koning have been proven in court.