Trust, funds of charity depleted
By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- The phone has been disconnected. The calendar is still turned to August. And though the office of Earth Share of Florida in downtown St. Petersburg remains unlocked, no one sits at the front desk.
It's been like that since Earth Share executive director John T. "Jack" LaBounty was forced out four months ago. Now LaBounty is under investigation by St. Petersburg police, and the charity's auditors are trying to piece together what happened.
Yet hundreds of people in Florida, many of them state and federal employees, continue to send a few dollars every week to Earth Share. They expect the money deducted from their paycheck will go to support 22 environmental organizations around the state, including the Friends of the Everglades, Audubon of Florida and the Save the Manatee Club.
Thanks to LaBounty, those organizations may not see a dime from Earth Share this year.
"That will depend on what bills we have to pay first," said treasurer Diane Hines.
American Express, for instance, demanded immediate payment of a $5,000 debt run up by LaBounty. Earth Share had to pay the bill with contributions from state employees that had just arrived, Hines said, because "we didn't have the money."
The 65-year-old LaBounty, who according to his girlfriend has recently left the state, could not be reached for comment about the accusations against him. Among them: He used Earth Share's credit card to buy computers and other equipment for his home, then concealed the bills from board members.
"By nature, we've been a very trusting group of people," said Ken Bryan, president of Earth Share's board of directors. "We believed in Jack, believed in the things he told us."
The board wanted to believe the silver-haired LaBounty would be its savior from the financial doldrums. He flew around the country, stayed at fine hotels and boasted about how much money he raised.
But it was all a sham, said Carrie Walters, the Earth Share employee who blew the whistle on him:
"He was living off money that should have been going to protect our environment," Walters said.
Launched in 1991 with high ideals, the organization originally known as the Environmental Fund for Florida has floundered along for a decade, perpetually short on cash and long on mismanagement.
The Environmental Fund for Florida -- now Earth Share of Florida -- is one of a number of charities approved to collect money through payroll deductions from state and federal employees. As with United Way, the employees designate an amount to be taken from their checks each week to go to the fund. The fund, like other umbrella charities, then disburses the money to various environmental groups.
But records from the past five years show that the Environmental Fund for Florida consistently spent thousands of dollars more than it collected. In the 1998-99 fiscal year, for instance, expenses exceeded income by more than $35,000.
So an environmental group like Tampa Baywatch might receive $800 from the fund, but then give half of it back to cover the fund's debts and keep it propped up for another year, said Peter Clark of Tampa Baywatch.
The organization had problems long before LaBounty. His predecessor as executive director, Melissa Metcalfe of St. Petersburg, quit after just three months because she said she caught a bookkeeper mishandling funds, and she couldn't get anyone to give her a copy of the budget.
When LaBounty applied to replace her in 2000, he seemed like a godsend. He had no experience with environmental causes, but his resume listed an extensive background raising money for nonprofit causes, said Kellie Westervelt, then the fund's president.
"He had excellent salesmanship-type skills," she said. "We were looking for someone like that to break down the barriers in the corporate workplace."
LaBounty presented himself as a dashing man-about-town with a wealth of stories and an exotic sports car, a 1981 Lancia Zagato. But he had some baggage the board did not know about.
The Internal Revenue Service had slapped a $17,000 lien on him in Connecticut in 1994. And he had an outstanding warrant from Broward County for failure to pay traffic fines.
In June 2000, LaBounty's car hit a 9-year-old boy on a bicycle in Pompano Beach. The boy suffered some scrapes, and LaBounty was caught driving on a New Jersey license that had been suspended 12 years before. His Lancia also had no valid tag.
In March 2001, LaBounty was stopped on U.S. 19 by a state trooper and cited again for his expired license and tag. He gave the trooper a fake address in Clearwater Beach and never paid his fines, so there is now a warrant for his arrest in Pinellas County.
Earlier this year, LaBounty sued a St. Petersburg garage, accusing its mechanics of damaging his Lancia. The garage's attorney became suspicious about LaBounty and asked about his driver's license.
"Due to a heart attack, I ceased driving in 2001 and turned in my license," LaBounty replied, according to court records. When the attorney demanded more information, LaBounty dropped the lawsuit.
Actually, say Bryan, Hines and Walters, LaBounty had no heart attack in 2001.
LaBounty started his new $45,000-a-year job at a fortuitous time. The independent Environmental Fund for Florida was poised to merge with a national organization called Earth Share. The national group has deals with major corporations, including Dell, Wells Fargo and the Gap, so their employees could donate through Earth Share to environmental groups.
By merging, the Florida organization would rake in some badly needed cash. According to a June 2001 financial statement filed with the state, Earth Share of Florida had revenues of $31,754 and expenses of $87,978, for a net loss of $56,224 -- its worst ever.
A year later, according to LaBounty, the situation had turned around. This summer he told the board that income had topped $313,000, while expenses were $126,000. He predicted that by December, Earth Share of Florida would be able to give environmental groups more than $200,000.
LaBounty told board members he was working on corporate fundraising campaigns that required him to jet around the country at Earth Share's expense.
"He was talking like a mover and shaker, and saying the future looked bright," Walters said. But then, "I discovered that all these files for the campaigns he was talking about were empty."
LaBounty was claiming as his own the programs that the national Earth Share organization had developed, Walters said. Meanwhile, she and Earth Share board members said, LaBounty was using Earth Share's charge card to buy five computers, two printers, a scanner and a digital camera, most of which went to his rented home in Treasure Island.
"Those office supplies never made it to the office," Walters said.
LaBounty was allowed to write checks of up to $500 on the corporate bank account. When a charge card bill for thousands of dollars arrived, rather than let board members see how much he was spending, LaBounty would pay the bill with four or five $500 checks, she said.
Walters said she saw a weekly paycheck of $400 written to LaBounty's girlfriend, Rene Werner, for running errands for LaBounty. She said LaBounty rarely came to work, instead dispatching Werner to pick up his mail and make bank deposits for him.
Werner, who still lives in Treasure Island, defended LaBounty. She blamed all his troubles on Walters, whom she described as "crazy." As for LaBounty putting her on the payroll, she said, "What, I'm not allowed to work?"
In June, Walters quit. She dispatched a lengthy e-mail to Earth Share's board members detailing LaBounty's free-spending ways. She noted that Earth Share's checking account had dipped below $20,000.
She expected the board members to leap into action, but they did not. The problem, Bryan said, was that "Jack was so good at what he did that he was able to convince some folks that Carrie was off her rocker and that wasn't true."
Three months passed before the board agreed to fire LaBounty. Bryan said the final straw came when LaBounty demanded the board fire the auditors poring over his books. The board refused.
Before they could fire him, he quit.
No board members called police. That was left to Metcalfe, the previous director. Her name was still on the Earth Share charge card LaBounty had been using.
After four months the investigation has stalled, said Detective Dean Clark. He said board members appear reluctant to provide police with information.
Bryan said the board has done everything police have asked.
Werner said LaBounty now works for a museum in a small town near Atlantic City, N.J. However, she said she could not recall the name of the museum or the town. Efforts to locate him in New Jersey were not successful.
Instead of hiring a replacement for LaBounty, the Florida board has turned over its accounting to the national Earth Share office. National Earth Share president Kalman Stein said the Florida chapter's woes are a first for the organization, but they have demonstrated a need to tighten hiring and other policies so similar abuses do not occur elsewhere.
To Walters, the lesson was painfully clear. When friends ask her about donating money to environmental groups, "I always tell them: Don't contribute through a third party."
-- Times researchers Caryn Baird and Debbie Wolfe contributed to this story.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times
local news desks