Follow-up to Stocking Full of Guns. Read that before this, if you haven’t already.
Two weeks ago the Underground reported on rumors about misuse of funds donated to Walker County Stocking Full of Love, a charity operated out of the Walker County Sheriff’s Office.
In brief, the organization lacks accountability because it has never registered with the IRS. Multiple eyewitnesses have observed money spent inappropriately during the last several years. The biggest abuse reported concerns Deputy Bruce Coker, SFL’s CFO and Treasurer, using charitable funds to purchase a shotgun as a gift for Sheriff Wilson, the charity’s CEO.
Attempting to be responsible, the Underground sat on these reports for two years while trying to track down more verification or hard evidence. An LU contributor put in an Open Records request to Stocking Full of Love this June, seeking financial records from 2009-present. Those records would confirm or disprove the stories, but Sheriff’s Office employees only partially filled the request by sending bank statements without copies of cleared checks.
A second request was made in July, asking for cleared checks. This request was delayed for nearly a month in violation of state law. The delays and lack of cooperation strengthened suspicions that the men behind Stocking Full of Love had something to hide. We ran the rumor as such on Monday July 30th, 12 hours before Election Day, so voters would at least be aware of what had been said.
On Election Day the Sheriff’s Office finally put about half of the records requested – cleared checks from July 2009 through September 2010 – in the mail. Breaking the law by waiting a month to partially fill the request ensured the information wouldn’t be made public before people turned out to vote, shielding the Sheriff’s reelection campaign and Deputy Coker’s failed effort to become Chief Magistrate Judge from flack related to abuses at Stocking Full of Love.
Considering what the released files contain, they were right to fear what voters might think.
The biggest concern, Coker’s purchase of a shotgun for the Sheriff using funds meant for children’s Christmas presents, is verified beyond a doubt by check 940. GT Distributors of Rossville isn’t a toy store or a general retailer, they’re a distributor of weapons and equipment for public safety and security – and the $829.95 check says “Gift to Sheriff” right on its memo line.
According to some, Coker claims to have later reimbursed the amount using “SWAT Team money,” but between February 2010 (when the gun was purchased) and March 2012 (when released bank statements end) there was no deposit matching the price of the gun. There were several larger deposits, so it’s possible the amount was somehow paid back – but there’s no definitive proof of that in these records. And even if it were refunded, the initial misuse of funds is still unethical and possibly criminal.
Beyond the shotgun purchase, what else is in Stocking Full of Love’s shared bank records?
Tens of thousands of dollars spent at Big Lots, K-Mart, Walmart, Dollar General, Fred’s, Family Dollar, and several wholesalers all appear to fit into the organization’s core purpose of supplying toys for children. The biggest check written during the period available for review is $9,815.55 marked “Toys For SFOL” made out to Powell’s Auction in LaFayette [check 930].
Like most non-profits, Walker County Stocking Full of Love also conducts fundraisers on a regular basis. Thousands spent on food, hats, and shirts fit with that purpose, as does $3,927 [checks 906, 978] for “Trophies & Awards” presumably for the organization’s annual car show. (Nevermind the trophies were purchased from Coker’s Trophy Shop, owned by Bruce’s brother.)
Other transactions don’t have any obvious link to fundraising or purchasing Christmas gifts.
Between July 2009 and September 2010, Stocking Full of Love spent $125.90 for flowers at Ensign Florist in Rossville [checks 941, 951, 963], $99.80 at Boquet Shop [check 984], $257.33 at Aldi grocery store in Fort Oglethorpe [checks 946, 945, 954, 957, 967, 971], and $158.95 at Shop Rite [checks 956, 982]. Most of the checks to grocery stores were small, enough to buy one or two people a meal, or a few boxes of donuts for the office – not the kind of numbers expected for a fundraiser or event. During the period there was also $500 [checks 924, 935] designated simply for “Petty Cash” – more unaccountable money that could have ended up as office donuts or somebody’s lunch.
$2,500 paid to Modern Woodmen [check 912] also has no connection to Christmas gifts. Modern Woodmen is a fraternal organization providing personal insurance (health, life, dental) and investment services to individuals, not businesses or organizations like SFL. Even more curious, Modern Woodmen gave Stocking Full of Love a $5,000 donation two days before Stocking Full of Love wrote Modern Woodmen the $2,500 check. That looks like a financial tit-for-tat that might be of interest to the IRS.
A number of unexplained checks written to individuals raise similar concerns.
David Murray was paid six times in fifteen months, checks worth a total of $749.29 [checks 913, 921, 943, 952, 958, 973] – only one of which [$46.08] was noted as a reimbursement, for “supplies #390 420.” Research finds two David Murrays living in the area, one in Rock Spring and the other in Ringgold, with no information publicly available for either individual.
Sharon Lands, one of the organization’s check signers and SFL “vice president,” was paid $857.34 [checks 897, 910, 919, 959, 986], plus an additional $39.98 to “reimburse – supplies” [check 965] in August 2010. Lands owns Land’s Old Fashioned Bakery in Rossville, has a daughter? Mitzi working at the Sheriff’s Office, and is described as a big supporter of Sheriff Wilson.
Stocking Full of Love’s other check signer, besides Lands and Coker, is Margie Sisson – the organization’s legal secretary. During the 15-month period available for review, Margie’s husband John was paid $170.50 [checks 901, 962] while Margie received $385.20 [check 916]. The Sissons were also reimbursed $143 for “freezer” and “CD Players” [checks 915, 972]. John is a trustee and legal CEO of Oakwood Baptist, where Steve Wilson is a deacon and the toys for Stocking Full of Love are distributed.
Bruce Coker apparently feels the organization has plenty of accountability with three check signers and an unnamed board of directors “deciding” about every dime spent. But there’s no accountability when check signers and board members are getting payments and have business or professional ties to each other: Two of the three check signers are getting checks from the group, another signer writes checks to businesses owned by his family members, two check signers work for (or have a child working for) the Sheriff, and someone rumored to be a board member has gotten payments [check 925] and possibly flowers from the group. Most of these payments may have a legitimate explanation, but that’s a lot of inside dealing and conflicts of interest involving people who should keep distance between themselves and the organization’s finances.
And all three check signers agreed to the $829 present for Wilson. That negates any claim they might make about financial accountability or independence, because there’s absolutely no way to justify the gun purchase within the stated mission of Walker County Stocking Full of Love. That decision raises all kinds of red flags and justifies any criticism or questions directed to the organization’s leaders. If they didn’t object to that transaction, what would they object to?
Buying the Sheriff a present isn’t inherently wrong, and there are plenty in the county who would line up to throw a few bucks in the “Sheriff Wilson Shotgun Fund” bucket. But if Stocking Full of Love is going to buy gifts and favors for the Sheriff, his employees, or his friends, it should be advertised as such so people know who and what they’re contributing to. Change the name to “Steve Wilson Present Fund” or “Friends of the Sheriff Foundation” with no claims of being tax-exempt and there’s no complaint, but the current name and stated goals aren’t compatible with shotguns, flowers, food, and random payments for the organization’s leaders.
Not only has Stocking Full of Love been promoted as a charity solely for children, it’s been pushed as a group where all money raised, without overhead expenses, is spent on SFL’s core purpose: buying Christmas gifts.
In August 2010, six months after the shotgun was purchased, Bruce Coker and former Walker Sheriff’s Deputy Dick Dingler (another rumored member of the SFL board) appeared on the Tommy Jett radio show to talk about upcoming fundraisers for Stocking Full of Love. Dingler at one point said everything donated to the group goes to gifts, and Coker didn’t correct him.
- “Every dime raised goes to that, there are, there is nobody that’s paid with [uninteligible] members of the stocking full of love, our books are open to the public at any time, the county auditor audits our books on an annual basis.” -Deputy Dick Dingler, Tommy Jett Radio Show, 08/06/10
“Every dime” to Christmas presents means no shotgun purchases. It also means no t-shirts, no hats or BBQ for fundraisers, no trophies, no groceries, no unexplained payments to Modern Woodmen, no freezers, and no “petty cash.” Dingler and Coker’s claims of no overhead – much less no abuse – are wildly false. Those statements are a slap across the face of every school group, church choir, biker, civic group, car show participant, and volunteer who ever helped raise money thinking “every dime” would go to buy Christmas for children instead of weapons for the Sheriff and flowers for his friends.
Plenty of charities mishandle money. Hardly a year goes by without some report of nonprofit leaders skimming off the top or preachers misleading people about finances. But this isn’t just some charity, this is an organization run by members of law enforcement who should know the law better than anyone else and be ethically beyond reproach. This is also an organization that uses resources, supplies, employees, and office space from the Walker County Sheriff’s office, funded by our tax dollars. That makes Stocking Full of Love the last place where this kind of thing should happen, and that’s why so many in the community have trusted SFL for so many years without bothering to check financial records. But that trust and lack of due diligence has apparently enabled the abuses examined here.
In these discussions, Sheriff Wilson has mostly been left out. He doesn’t sign checks, doesn’t seem to directly have his hands in the till, and doesn’t appear to make decisions about how money is spent – but Wilson did accept the shotgun gift even though he had to know it was purchased unethically. He’s also still Stocking Full of Love CEO, and has been for sixteen years. That’s longer than Coker has even worked at the Sheriff’s Office. Ultimate responsibility for any shenanigans or lack of oversight at Stocking Full of Love should fall on his shoulders.
Last week sources close to the Sheriff’s Office said Coker resigned as Stocking Full of Love treasurer, or at least offered to. He should resign, or be removed if he tries to retain the position. But whether he stays or goes, his role at SFL isn’t the root of the problems uncovered. The core problem here is, as noted, a lack of accountability for everyone involved with the organization. Walker County Stocking Full of Love isn’t registered with the IRS so there are no annual reports filed, their financial records are difficult to access (as LU contributors learned), and its board of directors/check signers apparently have very low standards regarding acceptable use of donated funds.
Despite Dick Dingler’s claims to Tommy Jett, the county auditor apparently doesn’t include Stocking Full of Love financials in its annual review. SFL isn’t broken down into a separate category or mentioned at all in the county’s 2010 or 2011 audit report, and SFL doesn’t have its own line in the county budget. If the auditors did actually look at SFL books without red-flagging any of the abuses or concerns highlighted here, then their audit is pretty useless.
Instead of attacking the Underground for bringing these issues to light, the Sheriff should take immediate steps to change leaders at Stocking Full of Love, have the organization audited, and begin taking necessary steps to have it recognized as a 501(c)3 organization by the IRS. He should also step down as the organization’s CEO and transition it away from leaders with political or law enforcement interests that might come into conflict with the group’s stated core mission.
But Wilson isn’t going to do that, for the same reasons SFL was allowed to misuse funds in the first place – he knows Walker County voters give him and his office a free pass on wrongdoing because of his undeservedly spotless reputation.
There’s more to Stocking Full of Love than what’s presented here. Considering what’s inside the 2009 and 2010 records they finally released, what’s in the 2011 and 2012 files that haven’t been released? More of the same, or something worse? Available bank statements show slight drops in donations during 2010 and 2011 compared to 2009, and a decrease in spending during 2011 – so hopefully additional records would show fewer unnecessary transactions conducted to save money for the kids. But if that’s happened, why did they refuse to disclose the remaining information requested?
To get to the bottom of this, a proper, thorough investigation should be conducted by a “mainstream” media outlet or government agency with more resources and authority than possessed by the LaFayette Underground. That’s not likely to happen, but it should – not just for SFL donors, but for the safety and security of everyone in Walker County.
Since the public doesn’t fully know where the money goes or where it all comes from, who’s to say some criminal or illegal operation hasn’t (or won’t in the future) made a generous donation to Stocking Full of Love in an attempt to buy favor from the Sheriff or his employees? Not to say they would cooperate with bribery, but the potential for that kind of activity to ever occur under any sheriff should set off alarm bells across the state. That’s the main reason why SFL should be separated from the Sheriff’s Office and overseen by people with no connection to law enforcement or the court system.
Until substantial changes are made and deeper investigations are done, the people of Walker County should be wary of this organization and stop assuming its finances are handled properly just because of who’s in charge. Donors to any organization should do due diligence, checking financial reports and verifying claims before contributing to a cause.
Over the last 24 years Walker County Stocking Full of Love has done some good things, has helped many families with Christmas, and that’s not in doubt. But more could have been done, and could still be done, if money was being spent in the way it should be – the way it’s always been claimed to be. The only way to make that happen is to hold the organization and its leaders accountable, at the ballot box (ship just sailed on that one), socially, and financially.
Should you stop supporting Stocking Full of Love? No. But the community should stop giving the organization money. SFL supporters who want to be sure their gift actually goes to children should shop for toys themselves, buy items the group needs, and donate them directly to the Sheriff’s Office shortly before Christmas. That’s less convenient for group volunteers, but there’s really no other way to give without enabling SFL leaders to help themselves (or their relatives, or their employees) to a portion of what’s received.
Ultimately the blame for this scandal falls not just on leaders at Stocking Full of Love and the Sheriff’s Office, but on the voters and citizens of Walker County who have for too many years taken for granted that people are what they claim to be, and do what they claim to do. Until we, and our neighbors, stand up and start asking questions, abuses like this will continue to go on behind closed doors.