St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Charity's ex-director sentenced

By DAVID KARP

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 27, 2001


TAMPA -- The scene outside the courtroom Monday morning looked like a family reunion.

TAMPA -- The scene outside the courtroom Monday morning looked like a family reunion.

Delores Crooks, a longtime political consultant and Tampa fundraiser, kissed relatives and pointed out friends, which included a former Tampa mayor and a past head of the Tampa Housing Authority. She even scheduled a meeting for later in the afternoon.

But at the end of a three-hour hearing, a bailiff wrapped handcuffs around Crooks' wrists as her husband stood at her side.

Crooks, a former confidant of Tampa's powerful and an assistant to Hillsborough's chief judge, was sent to jail for six months on Monday for stealing about $6,500 from the Make-A-Wish Foundation, a charity set up to grant dying children a final request.

Circuit Judge Herbert Baumann told Crooks that her case was like grand theft cases except for one difference:

The victim in this case was a charity.

With that, Baumann ordered Crooks taken into custody immediately. He also sentenced her to four years of probation and fined her $6,567 in restitution. Assistant State Attorney Suzanne Rossomondo asked the judge whether he would order community service. He said sternly, "No."

On one side of the courtroom aisle, lawyers and Make-A-Wish supporters pumped their fists as Baumann announced the jail time. On the other side, about 20 of Crooks' friends looked stunned.

Her husband, James, pointed his finger at Robert Herce, the former president of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, who turned Crooks in to authorities. "I'll see you later," he said angrily.

"I must tell you we are shocked by the sentence," Crooks' lawyer Stephen Crawford said afterward.

Crawford had asked the judge to withhold sentencing of Crooks, 53, a first-time offender who served on the Planning Commission and the Civil Service Board, and raised funds for politicians such as Sheriff Cal Henderson and Chief Judge F. Dennis Alvarez.

She had worked as Make-A-Wish's executive director since 1994 and raised thousands to help sick children.

Former Tampa Mayor Bill Poe described Crooks as a model public servant, who helped solve citizens' problems when she worked in City Hall.

"It was one of the real bright spots in our administration, and as usual as mayor, I took credit for it -- but she was the source of the work," Poe said.

Crawford asked the judge to sentence Crooks to probation and community service. "Judge, she has suffered enough," Crawford said.

But many of the foundation's directors, including criminal defense attorneys such as Herce and Frank de la Grana, pushed for jail time.

"She was in the ultimate position of trust, and this was the ultimate betrayal of trust," Herce said. "She is a thief, and not only is she a thief, but she is the lowest form of a thief."

Prosecutors said Crooks maintained a bank account at the foundation without the board's knowledge and then used a foundation credit card to charge personal expenses such as dinners at Bern's Steakhouse, shopping sprees at Stein Mart and Fashion Bug, auto repairs, and family vacations.

Once, after the foundation had given Tampa Bay Lightning hockey tickets to sick children, Crooks ordered that staff get the tickets back. The tickets went to Crooks' children instead, prosecutors said.

Others at the foundation, including the wife of Circuit Judge Bob Mitcham, described Crooks as an incessant gossip who could be intimidating one minute and a charmer the next. She forbade employees from speaking to board members and instructed them not to question her, several employees said.

"It was just this uncontrollable madness," said Vickie McInnis, a wish coordinator at the foundation.

But because of Make-A-Wish's reputation, no one said anything, McInnis said.

Since Crooks' arrest, the foundation has established new internal controls to safeguard donations, said foundation president Rocky Rodriguez, a major at the sheriff's office. Two people must be present to open mail, and the same person who authorized a check cannot sign it. Also, the national Make-A-Wish Foundation hired an internal auditor, Stephen Hunt, in January. Hunt was the state attorney's investigator who pursued the case against Crooks.

Crooks' arrest in September 1999 did not appear to hurt the foundation's fundraising, according to financial statements. The foundation raised $607,295 in contributions in the year after her arrest, compared with $540,331 the year before.

In the fiscal year ending Aug. 31, 2000, the foundation spent $708,506 to grant wishes. Another $332,134 went to fundraising and management, an audit by the accounting firm KPMG shows.

Crooks told the judge that she pleaded no contest to the charges Monday to spare the foundation a week of bad publicity. In a trial, allegations would have come out about possible money laundering and extramarital affairs, her attorney said.

Foundation directors called the allegations about money laundering a baseless rumor, and prosecutors said they found no evidence of other crimes. Said Rodriguez: "She has made up so much innuendo."

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.