|Updated: Former Baker Manor manager accused of stealing $25K from residents|
|The Press - News|
|Written by Joel Addington|
|Monday, 19 December 2011 18:21|
The former manager of Baker Manor Apartments is suspected of stealing about $25,000 from tenants at the publicly-subsidized housing complex at the corner of Lowder and South 6th streets in Macclenny.
Donna Lynn Griffis, 46, of Jacksonville turned herself in at the sheriff’s office complex north of the city the morning of December 19 after a warrant was issued for her arrest on 507 counts of fraud, forgery, theft and other white-collar crimes spanning 17 months between March 28, 2010 and August 31, 2011.
The defendant’s bond was initially set at more than $5 million due to the high volume of felony counts and County Judge Joey Williams left it unchanged when Ms. Griffis made her first appearance the following afternoon with her Jacksonville attorney Curtis S. Fallgatter.
Ms. Griffis is accused of pilfering utility assistance checks meant to help low-income Baker Manor tenants, deceiving residents into paying more rent than they owed and, possibly, embezzling money from a dead child’s memorial bank account, among other offenses, according to police.Sheriff’s office investigator Chris Volz said at the bond hearing the total dollar amount lost due to the alleged crimes, including funds paid to replace the stolen money, could top $40,000. He said by phone earlier that day the investigation is ongoing and new information is being discovered daily, including details about money in the memorial bank account.
Police records identify 20 victims in the case.
According to the investigator, “a great deal” of the thefts already identified involved utility assistance checks from Baker Manor’s management company, Horizon Housing Management, LLC of Oviedo, FL, to tenants that were either deposited into Baker Manor’s petty cash account or cashed.
When Ms. Griffis was hired in February, 2010 she opened the petty cash account with permission from the company, but the account was supposed to be limited to $300 and used for office supplies and other expenses not covered by the apartment complex’s main account, Inv. Volz’s report states.
The suspect made ATM withdrawals from the petty cash account at gambling establishments in Florida and Alabama, including the Allied Veterans of the World, Inc. affiliate on Normandy Boulevard in Jacksonville, Inv. Volz said.
After an audit and investigation by Horizon Housing Management, which Inv. Volz said resulted in Ms. Griffis’ firing in mid-August, the company’s regional manager Joann Krakowski and Baker Manor’s current manager Regina Cody reported the alleged criminal activity to the sheriff’s office on November 7.
Horizon’s president Elizabeth Vermales declined to comment on the case this week other than to say her company is cooperating with law enforcement.
According to police reports, however, Ms. Krakowski said the company had a policy of issuing utility assistance checks to tenants whose income fell below a certain threshold, and they were forwarded to Ms. Griffis for distribution. The reports indicate Ms. Krakowksi said “numerous” tenants never received the checks or even knew they were eligible for such assistance.
The reports also show that Ms. Krakowski produced bank records indicating the checks were deposited into the petty cash account against company policy, or were signed and cashed, though residents denied signing them.
Police reports of interviews with tenants show they viewed Ms. Griffis as a friend who offered to help with paperwork or obtaining utility and other assistance for low-income residents, including rental assistance from the Northeast Community Action Agency nearby on Lowder Street.
That organization’s local director, Tamekia Jackson, said about $1000 in rent assistance from a federal grant program never made it to tenants. She also noted that her agency’s utility assistance program — the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program — was not compromised in the case.
One victim, 61-year-old Ronald Tyson, reportedly told police that just before Ms. Griffis’ termination, she told him he should’ve been receiving the utility assistance checks, but that a mistake she made with the paperwork caused a problem. Ms. Griffis then attempted to write him a personal check for the amount he should’ve received, but Mr. Tyson refused, according to Inv. Volz’s account of the interview.
The investigator explained by phone early this week Baker Manor tenants’ income, including Social Security benefits, food stamps, wages and even lottery winnings, must be regularly reported electronically to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, commonly known as HUD, because the federal agency sets rent amounts based on the income of tenants and the size of their units.
“[Ms. Griffis] would manipulate the reporting to make it look like the tenant owed more money and based on that [she’d say] cut me a check right now,” Mr. Volz said.
Another victim, Gibson-McDonald Furniture owner Joel Barber, said he wrote a check to Baker Manor to help out his daughter, only to find out later she never owed the money. He said Ms. Griffis also “skipped out” on a bill of more than $200 from his S. 6th St. store.
“In the beginning she seemed real helpful and involved in the community,” he said. “It seemed like she was really taking stock.”
Baker Manor tenant Angel Connell said Ms. Griffis helped her after her 11-year-old son was killed while crossing South 6th Street last July by setting up a memorial fund to pay for funeral expenses, a car for her and her two children and other bills, Inv. Volz’s report shows.
When the officer told her other money was used to pay more than half of the funeral bill and Ms. Griffis may have taken money from the memorial account for her personal use, the victim revealed that Ms. Griffis asked her for money after she was fired. In addition, Ms. Connell said she loaned the suspect $1700 and paid Ms. Griffis $150 for a refrigerator that never arrived.
Inv. Volz declined to comment this week on how much money was in a memorial account for Ms. Connell’s son. “That part of the investigation is still ongoing,” he said.
Ms. Griffis’ attorney, a former chief assistant US attorney, said at the bond hearing his client, a wife and mother of three, is committed to working out a plea agreement with prosecutors and paying restitution in the case.
He requested, unsuccessfully, that Ms. Griffis’ bond be greatly reduced so she could continue working and caring for her parents.
“She’s hoping to get a second and third job,” Mr. Fallgatter told Judge Williams, who left her bond unchanged at $5,070,000.
The attorney said after the hearing she will certainly lose her job because her family can only pay between $2500 and $3000 of the more than $500,000 needed to bail her out. Mr. Fallgatter declined, however, to provide details about where she’s been working.
Inv. Volz said he believed Ms. Griffis has been working at another property in Orange Park.
|Last Updated on Wednesday, 26 December 2012 12:58|