Bluffton dog park supporters say embezzlement scandal won't stop them

bheffernan@islandpacket.comJuly 9, 2013 

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FILE: Bluffton resident James Haberberger, right, proposes fundraising ideas Monday during a July 2013 Friends of Bluffton Dog Parks meeting at the Bluffton library.

SARAH WELLIVER — Staff Photo Buy Photo

About 40 residents came out Monday to support a Bluffton dog park group whose money was allegedly stolen by its former president.

Charles Bumgardner, president of the Friends of Bluffton Dog Parks board, asked for an informal vote from the audience on whether the group should continue efforts to create a public place for dogs, and all in attendance raised their hands.

The gathering at the Bluffton library was the largest Bumgardner said he'd seen at one of the group's meetings.

The park's future has been uncertain following the June 11 arrest of former board president William Grooms on charges of embezzling more than $10,000 from the group.

Grooms was ousted from the board, and Bluffton police were notified after board members discovered that the money raised to build a 1.53-acre dog park in Buckwalter Regional Park was gone.

Grooms had stolen as much as $19,000 from the group since June 2012, according to statements Bumgardner gave police. Before his arrest, Grooms had told the board it was near its $40,000 fundraising goal, board members have said.

The group now has only $661, Bumgardner said Monday.

Amanda Mitchell-Grooms, William Groom's wife and the board's former treasurer, was arrested June 25 on two charges of being an accessory to breach of trust, before and after the alleged theft.

William Grooms used the money to pay off gambling and other debts, according to a statement he gave police.

Several audience members said they hoped the group could make the best of a bad situation and use the recent attention to spur a successful fundraising campaign.

They talked about launching a fundraiser on kickstarter.com, a website that helps groups raise money for nonprofit projects, or attending a Beaufort County Council meeting in a show of force to request financial help.

"We can get this done in six months," said supporter Debbie Szpanka. "This is an opportunity. We can just hit it hard and get it done."

But some longtime advocates for the park said they worry that the newcomers' enthusiasm will wane.

"I'd be shocked if there are 20 people at the next meeting," said Alethea Fritchlee, who said she stepped down from serving as the board's vice president in January.

"We get a lot of people who say things we should do, but (they) aren't willing to do it with us."

Bumgardner said it will take more than one meeting to keep the project and the group going. He hopes to fill six open board seats at the next meeting at 7 p.m. Aug. 5.

Follow reporter Brian Heffernan at twitter.com/IPBG_Brian

Related content:

Wife of alleged dog park embezzler arrested, June 25, 2013

Bluffton man charged with stealing from dog park group tells police he was stabbed, June 14, 2013

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