The Riverside Sheriff’s Association is a union that looks after its own – including when they have unusual legal problems. The association is hoping its spirit of generosity doesn’t result in embezzlement charges. Investigators from the Department of Labor (DOL) and the FBI are trying to determine whether an apparent shortfall of more than $100,000 in the union’s legal defense fund isn’t the result of violation of federal pension law. Based on information from the probe, the U.S. Attorney’s Office on June 26 filed a confidential motion in Riverside County (Calif.) Superior Court confirming the joint investigation was looking into unlawful conversion of funds or “embezzlement of funds held in fiduciary trust by the Riverside Sheriff’s Association Legal Defense Trust.” So far nobody has been charged with a crime. The 2,500-member association, which is separate from the County Sheriff’s Department, said it welcomed a “full, fair and impartial review of the matter at issue.” It’s a matter that will take a while to resolve.
The case originated from anonymous fax messages alleging misuse of union funds relating to legal expenses paid on behalf of former Sheriff’s Deputy Duane Evan Winchell. Mr. Winchell, a 15-year veteran, had been fired in 2003 in the wake of charges that he’d trespassed on and vandalized his estranged girlfriend’s property. The following year he pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor charges, and was sentenced to two years probation. The attorney didn’t come cheap. The faxes took issue with the union paying for Winchell’s legal fees, explaining that his illegal behavior had occurred during off-duty hours. The messages singled out RSA President Pat McNamara, and were distributed to sheriff’s stations last February and July. McNamara later filed a defamation suit against the person he believed was responsible for the accusations, former union operations manager Scott Teutscher, who had been fired last September. Teutscher’s attorney, Joe Allen, says his client has denied all allegations.
Federal investigators, for their part, are trying to determine whether any ranking employees, directors or trustees of the union or the Legal Defense Trust improperly approved expenditures for Winchell’s legal defense, knowing that such expenses would have violated benefit plan rules covered by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. Improper use of funds could constitute theft or embezzlement. RSA lawyer Michael Proctor argues that the association’s legal defense plan allows coverage across a wide variety of circumstances, including those not directly related to employment duties. The U.S. Attorney’s Office is asking that proceedings be placed on hold until the DOL-FBI investigation is resolved. A hearing on that request will be held in August. (Riverside Press Enterprise, 7/7/06).