• Sun. May 26th, 2024

Ex-West Virginia VOAD finance manager sentenced for fraud

CHARLESTON, WV (WOWK) –

The former finance manager for West Virginia VOAD will spend more than three years behind bars for defrauding the group and wire fraud.

Southern District of West Virginia Federal Judge Irene C. Berger sentenced Benjamin Cisco, former finance and operations manager of VOAD, to 41 months in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release. He will also be required to pay $871,288.34 in restitution.

“Anytime you have an issue, whether it’s embezzlement or the lack of transparency and the issues of them not coming in to answer some questions, it’s concerning,” Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango said. “I think having an audit or some kind of investigation is appropriate. I think just given the surrounding issues, it’s appropriate for the auditor, JB McCuskey, to come in and do an investigation.”

According to court records, in the span of two and a half years, Cisco transferred money from the nonprofit’s accounts to his own personal accounts more than 100 times, taking more than $870,000. He did this by using VOAD debit cards to transfer money, recorded as donations, and he also created “fictitious documents” to hide this from VOAD.

“I knowingly took funds intended for West Virginia VOAD to my own account,” Cisco said in court.

Cisco continued by saying what started out as him taking small amounts of money from the charity organization turned into a continual habit “way over my head.” Cisco said this was never his original attention when he began working with VOAD in 2016.

“This is not who I am as a person,” he said in court. “Of all the things I’ve done in my life, this is the one I regret most.”

“When you steal from a charity organization, you steal from the people it serves,” Judge Berger said.

Cisco pleaded guilty to the charges in May 2023.

Documents filed after Cisco’s guilty plea showed that VOAD wanted him to pay them more than what he stole, saying he had put them in a “financial hardship” and ruined their reputation.

An accountant on behalf of VOAD, Kimberly Williams, submitted an affidavit claiming the charity was negatively impacted in four major ways.

It claimed that VOAD had lost over $700,000 dollars from Cisco’s actions. It also stated that VOAD was required to lay off employees and get an emergency line of credit for $500,000, and VOAD could not obtain two crucial grants: one from the Kanawha County Commission, and another from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation. Lastly, the affidavit stated that VOAD could not pay for necessary additional expenses to fix the damage Cisco caused, totaling over $137,000.  

However, a rebuttal filed on January 3 pointed out weaknesses in the affidavit.

The rebuttal showed a lack of auditing by VOAD and evidence to support these claims. It stated there was “double counting” in the Williams’ affidavit for damages caused. The rebuttal also showed no ties to Cisco and why VOAD filed an emergency line of credit for $500,000. The line of credit money could’ve also been used to pay the damages Cisco caused, according to the rebuttal.

Lastly, VOAD received one grant from the Benedum foundation for $150,000 in 2020 and another one in 2021.

The second grant was supposed to be $50,000 from the Kanawha County Commission for bridge repair after the 2023 floods in Eastern Kanawha County.

The commission rescinded their letter of intent to grant VOAD this money after VOAD changed what the purpose of this grant was going to be weeks before the commission meeting in November. Yet, VOAD never stated why they changed their mind or what the money would be used for.

“We were still willing to work with VOAD because we wanted to help the people of the upper Kanawha valley, the flood victims, but when you won’t come in and answer questions in a public meeting, you’re not going to get the money. So, that’s just the way it works. Unfortunately, they still have not communicated to us what they wanted to use the money for, so, we’re not going to change our position,” Salango said.

The rebuttal stated this had nothing to do with Cisco’s case.

“It was a lack of them communicating with us. It was the fact that we received information directly from their board members that there was a separate investigation going on. The fact that the governor’s office confirmed there was a separate investigation going on,” Salango said. “So, they can claim that in court, but in reality, it was their lack of willingness to come in and answer what they were going to spend the money for.”

“Being told that they did not want to go in that direction and they wanted to sue that money for something else that they would not specify for us was very concerning. It was a red flag,” commission president Lance Wheeler said.

VOAD itself is facing scrutiny and allegations about the possible misuse of both federal and state dollars. On Sunday, executive director Jenny Gannaway appeared in front of the Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding to be questioned about potential misuse of VOAD’s funds and donations for personal gain. This matter was passed along to the State Auditor’s Office, the Senate Committee on Investigations, and the Legislative Auditor’s Office.

In response to the sentencing, The WV VOAD Board of Directors said it “gratefully recognizes” the sentencing.

“The recent experience has underscored the need to review and improve practices in our operational management.  We have implemented more robust operational procedures designed to proactively safeguard against financial misconduct. Recognizing the paramount importance of rebuilding trust within our community and among our valued supporters, we are fully committed to transparency and accountability.”

Cisco was released on bond that he previously posted.

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