Ex-Sunshine Industries director arrested

Scott Swanson

Verle “John” Strickler, former executive director of Sunshine Industries, was arrested and jailed Wednesday, June 8, on charges of aggravated first-degree theft.

Strickler, 50, led Sunshine Industries, a non-profit 501 C(3) organization that assists people with developmental disabilities, from 2003 to October 2010, when he was removed from the director’s position, Sunshine Board President Chuck Thompson said.

Police Chief Bob Burford said the arrest was the result of a seven-month investigation, which began Oct. 28, 2010, when Thompson contacted police about board members’ suspicions regarding possible embezzlement of organization funds. The board had become aware of suspicious financial activity in March of 2010 and requested the assistance of an accountant, who confirmed their suspicions, he said.

Thompson said that the sequence of events leading to Strickler’s arrest is “a long story,” but that board members had had difficulty for “several years” in getting information from Strickler about the organization’s finances.

“We spent a long time dealing with that,” he said. “How much money we had in the checkbook, what our debts were.”

He said concerns began when, as chief board member, he began receiving notices from SAFE and the Oregon Department of Revenue that fees and taxes had not been paid, totaling as much as $60,000.

“That initiated questioning John why those hadn’t been paid,” Thompson said. Then Strickler told the board that Sunshine was behind on its federal taxes as well, that money withheld from employees’ paychecks had not been paid to the IRS.

At that point, he said, the board decided to bring in an outside bookkeeper to do payroll. The bookkeeper reported that the organization was indeed behind in its payments to the IRS, but Thompson said it was unclear how much in arrears they were and they were counseled not to press the point with the IRS, but just keep making payments.

By early 2010 it became clear, he said, that Strickler needed to be reassigned and then-Senior Center Executive Director Rosanne Lupoli was hired in March 2010 as the new Sunshine director. Thompson said new problems began surfacing soon thereafter.

“(Lupoli) starts getting phone calls about money owed and payments not being made,” he said. “She said, ‘Send me an invoice,’ and they said ‘We’ve been sending invoices’ and she said ‘They haven’t come here.’”

He said it turned out that invoices had been sent – to a private address maintained by Strickler. A review of bank records showed that Strickler had apparently made payments to PayPal for personal purchases.

At that point, Thompson said, Strickler was asked to resign and the bookkeeper began reconstructing the organization’s financial dealings going back three years – a process that took seven months.

“It was too costly to go beyond that,” he said.

He said Sunshine directors met in October 2010 with the IRS and the agency waived penalties after they told their story. Thompson said Sunshine owed approximately $62,000 at that point.

“That’s when we went to the police,” he said. “It took a long time.”

Det. Cyndi Pichardo handled investigation, Burford said.

In addition to cash payments to Strickler’s own accounts from Sunshine Industries accounts, there were also many, many purchases made on-line, such as through eBay, including precious coins and what loosely could be termed “risque artwork,” he said.

The approximately six-month investigation included subpoenaes of bank and other records, which established that more than $10,000 worth of funds had been misused, which was enough to make a Class D felony case, Burford said.

“We ended up with just hundreds of pages of records subpoenaed from eBay and some other sources,” he said. “There were purchases made that were personal that were then being paid for by a PayPal count linked directly to (Strickler’s) bank account.”

Thompson said that does not represent all the losses, but it was enough.

“We don’t want to go to any great extent to pursue this,” he said. “Let’s just stop with what we got. We’re not going to get any money anyway.

“That’s the chief reason why we are pursuing this,” he said. “It’s about the integrity of the organization, the integrity of the capital campaign we are trying to put on. It’s our responsibility, being citizens of this country, to protect the government funds our taxpayers paid for.”

Burford also said the case goes deeper than the charges being made, but he said the complexity of the case makes it difficult to continue to probe deeper.

“With the transfers back and forth, we feel comfortable we can prove a criminal case with $16,000, which is what we base these charges on,” he said.

Thompson said Sunshine has developed “a comfortable cushion” financially since Lupoli took over.

“We are doing quite well,” he said. “It has completely turned around without any increase in our revenue. We have eliminated the vast majority of our debt, made purchases and stuff like that that we’ve never been able to make before. We are not struggling any more.”

He said anyone with questions should contact him at (541) 367-5384 or (541) 570-9067, or board member Ken England at (541) 818-0211.