By Carlos Restrepo
The Working Press
Following the unauthorized withdrawal of $40,000 from an Oklahoma chapter account, the Society of Professional Journalists board of directors voted Thursday to offer financial oversight assistance to the organization’s 12 regions.
The action does not affect the local chapters, however. Their budgets and financial records remain autonomous.?In approving the measure, board leaders – in Fort Lauderdale for at their annual meeting – said they hope it would help prevent the situation that occurred this spring when the former Oklahoma chapter secretary-treasurer admitted to improperly using chapter money.
On May 19, Oklahoma’s SPJ Pro Chapter President Scott Carter said in a press release that an investigation was launched. The chapter has consulted with a local prosecutor over whether charges will be filed.
In an email to his chapter, Scott Cooper, former Oklahoma chapter’s secretary-treasurer, admitted withdrawing $18,650 for personal use – though a later investigation shows the amount was more than double that amount. Cooper, who was also director of Region 8, resigned from both positions. According to an article on the Poynter Institute’s website, Cooper used the money for gambling.
“I think it’s an important change to make,” said Dana Neuts, who is running unopposed for national secretary-treasurer. Neuts said she would work with each region director on what type of oversight would best work for their areas.
Thursday’s resolution affected only those regions with a budget, said SPJ Board President John Ensslin.
While local chapters will maintain total control of their own money, each ? chapter leader received a document with best practices for chapter finances. ? One of the safest ways to avoid authorized withdrawals is to require two people to sign all checks, he said.
“We cannot tell chapters, ‘here, you have to follow these (guidelines),’” Ensslin said. “But we can tell you that if you follow those, the chances that you will run into something like in Oklahoma are very minimal.”
Cooper lied in his expense reports to the board, said Sonny Albarado, SPJ’s President-elect, who was part of a fact-finding committee that investigated what exactly happened in Oklahoma.
“The officers didn’t look back and check that his reports were accurate because he was someone they trusted,” Albarado said.
Cooper could not be reached for comment. In a May 17 Tulsa World story, Cooper’s attorney, Ed Blau, gave this statement:
“My client deeply regrets his actions as detailed in the Oklahoma SPJ statement. Words cannot express the embarrassment and remorse my client feels as a result of his mistakes.”
The chapter is doing its own investigation. Members have consulted with authorities on what should be the next step into their investigation. The new SPJ resolution hopes to address how many regions actually have budgets, Albarado said. Half of the 12 regions have a budget, but no one at the national SPJ headquarters really knows.
Ted Scripps Leadership Institute
Best Practices for Chapter Finances
Although theft is not a widespread problem within SPJ’s chapters, it can be crippling if it happens to you. By understanding and implementing some of the following recommendations, you can greatly decrease your exposure to misappropriation of chapter funds.
The majority of theft happens one of two ways:
1. Individuals open a bank account with a fake vendor’s name. Then, they write corporate (chapter) checks to these fake vendors. This allows them to deposit these “vendor” checks into an account they have access to.
2. Individuals with account access simply write checks to themselves. This is easy to spot as long as someone is watching. This is why it’s critical for more than one person to have account access.
How to Handle Expenses
One of the safest ways to have good oversight of your checking account is to have two people sign all checks. We understand that can be a tedious task, but it’s something you can make a part of your normal monthly meetings.
It may make more sense for your chapter to require two signatures on any check that is over an amount your board agrees on. For example, the Fort Worth Pro Chapter requires two signatures on anything over $25.
Someone without check-signing ability should track, check and view all account activity (online or in statements) to keep on top of things. This person should be looking to make sure the vendors are legitimate and expenses make sense.
For even more protection, this person should review all bills and corresponding checks to make sure they match. This should be done before they are signed.
At the very least, there should be someone monitoring the accounts and someone else signing checks. Don’t allow only one person to have account access. We highly recommend chapters do not use debit or credit cards. If it is a necessity, require receipts to be turned in and checked against the statement by a non-cardholder.
How to Handle Deposits
We recommend that each chapter purchase a rubber stamp that says “for deposit only” to be used on the back of checks. (This can also be handwritten). No individual should be signing his or her name for checks to be deposited. This practice prevents people from signing a check over to themselves.
One person should fill out a deposit ticket (and stamp for deposit only on the checks). Someone else should actually make the deposit at the bank. The deposit ticket should then be returned to the person who filled it out originally so they can match it to the receipt from the bank to verify accuracy. The person making the deposit ticket should ensure “for deposit only” shows on the back of all checks.