A former Camas mayor and director of a soon-to-be dissolved east Clark County economic development group stands accused of stealing about $15,000 of public funds.
Paul Dennis could face criminal charges for allegedly stealing funds from the Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association over a seven-year period. The Camas Police Department has forwarded its findings to the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for consideration.
Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik said the report was assigned to a deputy prosecutor on Tuesday. Golik said there was no timeline for when a charging decision would be made.
On Wednesday, Dennis called the situation unfortunate and something that stems from a civil dispute over pay. He said he’s still owed $10,000 by the association.
The association was founded in 2011 by the Port of Camas-Washougal and the two cities, and it was headed by Dennis. The agency’s mission was to “help existing businesses succeed and bring new businesses and jobs to the area.”
According to investigative documents provided by the Camas Police Department, Dennis was in charge of a checkbook for the association and was being paid $9,700 a month during his years-long tenure as chief administrative officer.
The association operated as a private organization until early 2018, when officials acknowledged it should be considered a public entity that made it subject to an audit by the state. Washougal Financial Director Jennifer Forsberg was assigned to complete a local audit to provide to the state, and she “had a difficult time receiving any documents from Paul, and had to go to the bank and get them herself,” the police report says.
Forsberg told police she discovered Dennis made many personal purchases with the association’s money, including a trip to San Francisco, parts for his Ford Mustang and “excessive amounts” of food and coffee, according to the police report.
Detectives stepped back from their investigation until January, when the state Auditor’s Office finished its work. During an interview with Forsberg in February, she noted what she considered several other suspicious losses of money, such as a Gamestop purchase around Christmas, transactions at PetSmart and gas charges during “Dad’s Weekend” at Washington State University in Pullman.
“I asked Jen (Forsberg) if she ever saw Paul adjust his payment or make right any of the purchases. Jen said there were no additional deposits into the CWEDA account except from the three government entities. Further, there were no invoices for any of Paul’s paychecks,” the police report says.
When asked what she thought about the association’s financial record, Forsberg said she believed there was clearly a misappropriation of funds, but a lack of controls over Dennis’ work made the issue more gray.
Dennis was interviewed by detectives, in the presence of his private attorney Jacob Zahniser, on Feb. 20. In talking about how the association functioned, Dennis told police it began to interfere with his private business relationships; he was ordered by Camas’ city administrator in 2018 to remove his name from a business website, which cost him $90,000 worth of work. He further accused the association’s board of advisor’s of calling meetings they were not permitted to do based on its bylaws.
He said his salary was originally hourly, but “the board told him to get $9,700 a month regardless of if he was working one or ten hours a day,” the police report says.
Dennis said he used the association’s account whenever he met its clients, including meetings at Subway, Burger King and coffee shops. He said there were a few irregularities that went against his pay, but he had settled them with the board, according to the police report.
When shown specific bank records, Dennis either said that he did not remember certain purchases, that the financial discrepancies had already been reconciled, or that the amount of money was a cumulative balance he was owed at that time, according to the police report.
Through several other interviews with Camas-Washougal officials and city leaders, Detective Brian Salwasser concluded in his report that not all funds were spent by Dennis for economic development, and that he clearly was not concerned with “reconciling the books,” as he’d offered in defense. The detective said there was probable cause of a charge of first-degree theft.
“Paul Dennis was the only person who thought it was okay to keep a running tally of money owed to him by the agency and make personal purchases with the agency debit card. As a former mayor and city councilman, Paul was trusted as someone who would appropriately handle the finances,” Salwasser wrote.
In a phone interview on Wednesday, Dennis said by his calculations, he was still owed around $10,000 when he left the job. He said he had not seen the police report.
“This started off as a civil dispute on payment at the closeout. We should have been sitting down and talking about details, and instead, we’re here. There were definitely expenses I had that were in lieu of a larger paycheck,” Dennis said.
He called the situation unfortunate.
“I’m going to stay professional. I’m not going to start slinging mud. I’ll use some decorum. At this point, it looks like my attorney and I will have to share any details with the prosecutor’s office,” he said.
Association set to dissolve in June
The association opened 2019 with a rave report card, but by the end of last year, it was set to dissolve.
Officials in Camas, Washougal and the Port of Camas-Washougal told The Columbian in December that they all discussed terminating their specific agreements.
Vancouver consulting firm E.D. Hovee & Co. released its interim report card in January 2019 that estimated the association helped create 4,458 jobs and aided in the arrival or expansion of dozens of local businesses, netting more than $6 million in new revenue for the three participating government agencies.
All three partners started looking at what to do with the association when Dennis stepped down as president. Dennis gave his notice in March 2019, and his last day was May 31, 2019. He told The Columbian in December he hadn’t had any contact about the organization since his departure.
Dennis said he left to pursue other opportunities, including focusing more on Forged Custom Homes, of which he is owner and president.
David Ripp, the Port of Camas-Washougal CEO, said Tuesday that the association will be officially dissolved in June. The board wanted to wait so it could shore up financial expenses and ensure the audit process was fully completed.
Ripp said the Port has grown a lot since the association’s inception, and it made more sense to hire its own business development manager instead of relying on Harris’ work.
Out of the partners, the Port was paying the largest share to the association annually, $100,000, he said. The cities of Camas and Washougal paid $50,000 into the association each year.
When asked about the allegations of theft, Ripp said he was initially surprised, but those feelings have since turned into disappointment and frustration. He said the Port would wait and see what actions are taken by county prosecutors before deciding how to move forward with the information.
Washougal Mayor Molly Coston said the association brought new businesses, numerous jobs and significant revenue to east Clark County with Dennis’ leadership. Coston said she is disappointed and saddened that charges are being brought forward.
“We will continue to work collaboratively to find a new path forward for economic development in east Clark County,” she said.
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