Bluffton dog park group recoups losses after embezzlement

rlurye@islandpacket.comNovember 7, 2013 

On March 18, a Bluffton nonprofit group's treasury report claimed it had $19,000 in the bank, which the organization planned to use to help build a dog park.

Eight months later, that's finally true again.

By July, the Friends of Bluffton Dog Parks' coffers were emptied of all but $662. However, the group has recovered the money a former board president embezzled, current president Cheryl Raugh said.

And they've done it one donation at a time.

The organization took in more than $8,100 from its Oct. 12 Bark in the Park fundraiser, more than six times the event's proceeds in 2012, according to the group's financial records. Volunteers also raised about $1,000 during the Bluffton Seafood and Arts Festival.

The rest came from more than 35 donations, given by residents and businesses who support the group's goal to build a $50,000 dog park by next year, Raugh said.

Former board president William Grooms was charged in June with stealing from the group. He committed suicide a month later.

"What happened was very tragic, but the community really does want the dog park, and everyone is coming together to make it happen," Raugh said.

By the end of October, Friends of Bluffton Dog Parks had raised $18,205 and has since surpassed $19,000. A report was presented to the board Wednesday as part of a concerted effort to keep the group's finances transparent.

"The first step, we all knew collectively, was we had to earn trust," board member Debbie Szpanka said.

The new board that was voted in decided that all transactions must be detailed in monthly reports and include bank statements, expenses and administrative fees. Other new financial safeguards include requirements for two counts of all cash receipts, two signatures on all checks and an audit at the request of any two directors. Cash withdrawals are no longer allowed from its bank accounts.

With those precautions in place, the group has turned its focus to the 1.53-acre site on Buckwalter Parkway that it hopes to convert to a dog park. This week, Beaufort County coordinated efforts to clear heavy underbrush from the area.

Though the group is still far from building the dog park, Raugh said she has a plan. Volunteers will collect donations while marching in the Bluffton Christmas Parade on Dec. 7, and the board plans to hold its second annual bowling fundraiser in early 2014.

Last year, that event resulted in a $64 loss, according to the group's September 2013 treasury report. However, Raugh believes much of the money raised in 2012 simply never made it into the bank.

"If they had really collected what they should have taken in, it would have been a good bang for the buck," she said. "I have no set expectations, but every little bit counts."

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