US Attorney: Former executive director of JCCEO program used federal funds as 'personal piggy bank'
Ruth Gayle Cunningham, the former executive director of the Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity, has been indicted on a theft charge, U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance announced today.
Cunningham, 63, who resigned from her position in March, is accused of stealing from a federally funded program between March 2009 and August 2010 and using the money to make monthly mortgage payments on at least three residential properties she owned and at least five residential properties her daughter, 31-year-old Kelli Caulfield, owned in Jefferson and Shelby Counties.
"Cunningham abused the trust and discretion she was given to use this money wisely to benefit those in our community who are struggling," Vance said in a release. "She used the agency's government funds as a personal piggy bank so that she and her daughter could line their pockets with hundreds of thousands of dollars intended to lift others out of poverty."
US Attorney Joyce White Vance announcing the charges against Gayle Cunningham and Kelli Caulfield on Friday, August 2, 2013. (abc3340.com)
Caulfield has been charged with conspiracy to defraud a federally funded program.
ABC 33/40 reporter Haley Westbrook has learned both women have signed agreements to plead guilty to the charges and repay $492,195 to the JCCEO.
According to Cunningham's plea agreement, she admitted to using JCCEO funds to pay property taxes on a house she bought in Chelsea in 2007 using a mortgage loan in excess of $1 million. She also acknowledged $293,413 in JCCEO funds paid to her daughter and other contractors for repairs at both women's properties.
Caulfield admitted in her plea that she created invoices, all of which were less than $5,000, for the repair work and gave them to her mother, who then submitted check requests to the JCCEO finance director.
The amount of the invoices Caulfield submitted allowed her mother, who as the executive director possessed the authority to sign checks less than $5,000, to funnel the money to her without having to get a second signature from a JCCEO board member.
The non-profit organization released a statement regarding today's announcement saying despite the amount of money stolen, a small fraction of the overall budget, it is committed to ensuring every dollar received is accounted for and properly used.
"Since learning of the investigation on this matter in March of this year, the JCCEO Board of Directors has worked closely with federal investigators to provide a comprehensive look at any and all inappropriate spending," JCCEO Board Chair Rev. T.L. Lewis said in a release. "While the funding in question represents less than 1.5 percent of the organization's overall budget, the JCCEO Board of Directors is deeply committed to rooting out any problems that have existed in JCCEO's finances and ensuring that every dollar this organization administrates is used in the most efficient way to provide services that strengthen Jefferson County, Alabama and the children and families we serve."
Cunningham faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, including a fine of up to $250,000, for her charge of theft from a federally funded program. But as part of her plea agreement, she faces a maximum prison sentence of 37 months.
Caulfield could be sentenced up to two years in prison for her conspiracy charge, according to her plea.
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