Hank Nuwer: Tax records report ‘alleged embezzlement’ | Opinion


In 1990, Mrs. Connie Clery phoned me. Her daughter Jeanne had been slain at Lehigh University by an employee. She was frustrated trying to get answers from the school about security measures.

Knowing my expertise on hazing crimes, Clery asked me to assist pro bono with her fledgling watchdog group (since renamed the Clery Center for Security on Campus — Clery Center for short).

Clery and husband, Howard, championed a federal statute signed in 1990, the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security, Policy and Campus Crime Statistics.

Among other things, campuses needed to warn students of impending threats and keep accurate crime statistics.

Indiana and USA colleges have filed crime reports for decades.

Around a decade ago, my involvement with Clery ended when directors changed the mission from crime watchdog to expert consultants on Clery compliance.

Which brings me to today. I have examined three years of Clery’s tax forms open to the public.

Tax forms report “alleged embezzlement” by former executive director Alison Kiss, renowned for her expertise on Title IX and on providing aid for sexual assault victims.

Clery’s 2018 Form 990, Part VI, Section A reveals this: “During 2018, management learned that the organization was the victim of an alleged embezzlement that encompassed the years 2014 through 2017, as well as during the period Jan. 1, 2018 through July 6, 2018.”

On Schedule L under “Excess Benefit Transactions,” Clery lists Alison Kiss as a “disqualified employee” and names her “transaction” as “alleged embezzlement.”

The alleged embezzlement has never been labeled a criminal offense. No criminal charges are or were pending against Kiss.

Nor is any Clery employee or director accused of wrongdoing.

On July 23, 2018, Kiss left Clery two days before she was to chair a major public presentation. Clery directors and activists Gary and Julie DeVercelly subbed for her.

Board chairman Roger Carolin said only this in a press release: “The board of directors and staff appreciate all that Alison accomplished during her tenure with Clery Center.”

Huh?

Carolin offered zero details about the alleged embezzlement even after it was confirmed later by a forensic accounting review for Clery.

Clery reported these figures to the IRS: “The estimated total of diverted charitable funds was $110,411.”

That is just under the annual salary of $117, 725 for the executive director.

However, Kiss disputed that higher amount.

She and Clery settled for 30 percent less–$77,288.

Putting out public notice of “alleged embezzlement” in footnotes on tax attachments is regarded as insufficient by crisis communication directors, according to Ray Begovich, University of Indianapolis director of graduate studies in public relations.

“No, it’s not enough to release [a 990 tax form],” advises Begovich, a former Franklin College professor who taught public relations. Begovich now is at the University of Indianapolis.

Board Chair Carolin missed the “golden hour” to disclose, namely “that very short window in which to respond correctly before getting the story framed forever by journalists and social media,” concluded Begovich.

I recently wrote to two directors and the current executive editor to try to get full disclosure.

“In response to your request for a public statement regarding Alison Kiss, Clery Center has no public statement to provide,” wrote Executive director Jessica Mertz on April 6, 2021.

Directors Gary and Julie DeVercelly — well-known nationally for anti-hazing education work — also declined comment.

However, Kiss has written back. She said is proud of all the valuable work that she and Clery accomplished.

But what about the “alleged embezzlement”?

“On the record, in terms of the situation cited in the 990, the most that I can say is that it was resolved and none of my work ever had intention of harm to anyone,” wrote Kiss.

She has moved on from Clery. Since 2018, she has held two different leadership positions in higher education.

Kiss recently earned a doctorate She also offers webinars on providing assistance to sexual assault victims, including one this month.

She soon may be free to pursue full redemption in her lifetime. Alleged embezzlement cases without criminal charges disappear in five years as the statute of limitations elapses.

One important thing remains.

Nowhere on Schedule O does the public learn how Clery funds “allegedly” were diverted.

It’s never too late for a valuable organization to show the same transparency in self-reporting that it rightly demands from colleges.

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