Former fairgrounds CEO charged with embezzlement
The case of the missing money at the Tri-County Fairgrounds has made its way to the District Attorney’s Office. Following a five-month investigation by the California Highway Patrol (CHP), the Inyo County DA has charged former fairgrounds Chief Executive Officer Sally Ann Symons with three felony charges, including misappropriation of government funds, embezzlement of government funds, and grand theft.
Symons voluntarily surrendered herself on Monday to the DA. She was booked and is out on a $25,000 bond. She is scheduled to appear in Inyo County Superior Court, Bishop for an arraignment on January 6.
Symons has not publicly admitted to the charges. There has been no official announcement made to the amount of money taken, but rumors are she allegedly took about $9,000 from an onsite ATM.
Inyo County District Attorney Tom Hardy said, “At this point, I feel the CHP has done a thorough job and there is no need for further investigations.” But, he added, anything can happen as the case develops and new information may warrant further digging. The CHP Inland Division Investigative Services Unit conducted the investigation because the fairgrounds are state facilities and the CHP acts as state police.
If found guilty, Symons faces a maximum penalty of four years in prison. Hardy said given Symons’ prior history and arrest record, “It seems fairly unlikely” the maximum penalty will be imposed.
Hardy explained there are many factors that go into sentencing for an embezzlement case, not just the amount of money taken, but prior history, how the perpetrator accepts responsibility and their cooperation with the case and investigation.
Rebecca Bragdon, for example, received 180 days in county jail, restitution and five years probation. Bragdon’s prior record was pretty clean too, Hardy added. Former fairgrounds office manager Bragdon was charged with embezzlement in February 2014 and sentenced in October 2015. Bragdon was ordered to pay $25,979.82 in restitution.
There do not appear to be any other people involved in the alleged activity, Hardy said. He added that the Tri-County Fair Board did not appear to have any knowledge of Symons’ actions.
According to a press release, Symons’ alleged activities took place between August 2014 and September 2015. Symons was hired in February 2014.
This is the second time in as many years an employee of the Tri-County Fairgrounds in Bishop has been accused of embezzlement.
Tri-County Fair Board President Paul Dostie told The Sheet that the Board is not involved in the day-to-day operation, and with a small staff, there must be “some level of trust” between the board and the CEO.
After the Bragdon affair, CHP investigators offered the Board advice to keep the fairgrounds safe from embezzlement in the future. But it was up to the CEO to implement these procedures. Dostie said this time, the CHP will perform a security profile of the fairgrounds and offer a report of suggestions to try and prevent the activity from happening again. He added that this time the CHP report will be in writing and the CEO will not be in charge of distributing that memo.
Hardy said he hopes the DA’s office will be able to offer more public outreach in the future.
Other steps will be taken to try and prevent embezzlement in the future, Dostie explained, such as video cameras everywhere and anywhere there’s cash.
A new CEO will not be able to distribute memos or be tempted to embezzle because the Board has decided not to hire a CEO. In its stead will be a management team, comprised of the Office Manager Suzie Wolfersberger-Gruwell and Outside Operations Manager Ben Barlow. The two will now carry the title of Manager, Gruwell explained. They will attend Board meetings and give monthly updates.
Gruwell has been with the Fairgrounds for decades and has a “strong history” with the organization. “I’ve handled a lot of money for them,” she told The Sheet.
All eyes will be on Gruwell now, but she said she’s fine with that.