Former head of polygamous sect's 'Lost Boys' home indicted
A former Salt Lake County manager who oversaw a home for a polygamous sect's "Lost Boys" has been indicted for allegedly giving more than $95,000 in overpayments and bonuses to employees, including one with whom he allegedly had a sexual relationship.
Richard Parks, 64, who oversaw AmeriCorps programs, was indicted Wednesday on 25 counts of fraud and theft. Prosecutors allege that he authorized double-dipping, gave illegal travel compensation and falsely approved education money for four employees over a three-year period.
The charges come after a year-long investigation by the FBI and the Salt Lake County Auditor's Office.
Parks' attorney, Greg Skordas, said he had been meeting with the U.S. Attorney's Office for some time, hoping to avoid criminal charges.
"We didn't feel that his conduct merited criminal charges, and we still don't," he said.
Parks oversaw The House Just Off Bluff, a St. George home for young men who had been cast out or left the Warren Jeffs-led Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. It was closed in 2008 amid problems with zoning and a lack of proper licensing for its clinical director, Michelle Benward.
The use of the house was donated by Jeremy Johnson, a local philanthropist and millionaire businessman who was indicted himself last year for allegedly running an Internet marketing scam.
The case has "tentacles that reach into almost all the interesting areas of Utah culture," said Jim Wightman, Salt Lake County director of compliance and performance assessment.
The investigation began after a former employee, 38-year-old Jami Christensen, died of a drug overdose in 2010. Benward, her sister, brought the allegations of fraud and mismanagement to the county, saying she'd discovered Christensen had a sexual relationship with Parks and it may have contributed to her death, according to the auditor's report. The pair had met nearly 30 years before, when she was a troubled student and he was a teacher at a rehabilitation facility.
The House Just Off Bluff was started in late 2006 or early 2007 by a Tropic-based nonprofit, New Frontiers for Families, with a $95,000 grant from a legislative initiative to help young men who had left or been tossed out of the FLDS by Jeffs.
The employees, or "members" were AmeriCorps volunteers who had their living expenses paid by the federal program, which awards education money. Parks managed those funds because Washington County doesn't have a similar position.
But at the House Just Off Bluff, Parks allegedly allowed Benward to be paid by both New Frontiers and AmeriCorps. Prosecutors say he also encouraged the creation of falsified time sheets, authorized part-time employees to be paid for full-time work and approved education grants from the federal program for people who did not earn them, according to the report. The alleged payments began in 2007 and, for Christensen, continued through 2009.
On at least four occasions, Parks was reimbursed for travel expenses on trips he took to see Christensen rather than work, according to the report.
With a job that was totally dependent on AmeriCorps programs and public concern for former members of the FLDS, Parks may have felt pressure to produce and rationalized the fraud through his long acquaintance with Benward and Christensen, the report states.
But "a remarkable lack of administrative due care" by Parks' county supervisors allowed his alleged fraud to continue, the report states. Those problems could put the county's other AmeriCorps programs which include about 20 volunteers in jeopardy, the report states.
"I think it's a sobering development," Wightman said. "It's something that will get a lot of attention and those who make the grants will attend to."
Salt Lake County spokesman Jim Braden said the county was conducting a "complete internal review" following the completion of the investigation.
A message left for Parks was not immediately returned.
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