Theft at Helpline puts agency, clients at risk

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WALLA WALLA — One of the city’s frontline social service agencies has launched an investigation into an alleged theft within its office.

Helpline, which assists the area’s most needy folks with rent and utility payments, as well as food, clothing, transportation and life skills, reported an accounting discrepancy to city police detectives last month.

On Monday agency board President Sharon Longmire said she is unsure when officials will know just how much money is missing.

“We are going through a process of reviewing files and looking for anything that might be construed as irregular,” she said.

What she and others at Helpline suspect happened was a former employee with authority over Social Security payments that come in on behalf of clients used the money for personal gain.

Helpline is the only nonprofit agency in the area to essentially act as banker for those who have difficulty in spending disability or veteran payments appropriately. Representative payees receive the money from the Social Security Administration or U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, then make sure the client’s basic needs are met and bills paid, sending that money out directly, Longmire explained.

“After that the payee works with the clients to make good (financial) choices. We allow for some ‘I wouldn’t buy this myself, but if you want to, you can spend it unwisely.’ We aren’t judge and jury. We are responsible for basic needs and work with them on their wants.”

Most of the payee clients come into Helpline weekly to get an allotment of their funds for spending. The agency receives less than $40 per client per month from Social Security for administering the payee service, she said.

It recently came to light such money had been spent inappropriately after a client died in 2011, she said, adding there have been other indicators, as well.

“The person who did this was very clever. We had a Social Security audit in the spring and we came out clear. The audit looked for expenditures and receipts, and we had expenditures and receipts.”

Even so, the data doesn’t show who benefitted from some of the purchases, Longmire noted. As she works her way through files, she is also struggling to decipher some SSA check endorsements.

It is in Helpline’s best interests and that of its clients to be diligent about getting answers, Longmire said.

“Without a conviction, the agency will be responsible for making restitution to clients and Social Security. We have insurance, but it all depends on a conviction.”

Investigation by detectives is continuing, said Walla Walla police Detective Sgt. Matt Wood. “It’s my understanding that the (Helpline) administration has taken steps to correct, to clean up, its accounting system.”

Longmire is ready to go the distance for resolution, she said.

“There are a lot of questions out there and I don’t know how long it’s going to take. If the individual is prosecuted … Social Security can level a fine of $250,000 or 10 years in jail. If it takes a million days, it takes a million days.”

Comments

cressjc 1 year, 8 months ago

As a long-time friend and supporter of Helpline and a former board member and chair, I want to affirm Executive Director, Dan Willms, and Board Chair, Sharon Longmire, for their responsible actions to quickly address a serious breach of breach of protocol by a staff member and for their continuing commitment to Helpline's vital role in our community.

Helpline remains a dedicated corps of compassionate professionals and volunteers who care for those most in need of the emergency social services they directly provide and network with other agencies to provide. The positive steps already taken by Helpline's effective board leaders and staff give me confidence that, in the face of this present challenge, the organization will continue to serve the Walla Walla Valley with the high level of integrity that has characterized its work throughout is long and honorable history.

Helpline continues to be deserving of our community's appreciation and strong support.

John C. Cress

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