The former administrator for Salt Lake County’s AmeriCorps program pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court on Thursday to charges of mishandling funds during an eight-year tenure in which he allegedly paid employees for hours not worked and awarded questionable bonuses.
Richard Michael Parks, 64, was indicted last month on five counts of felony theft from a program receiving federal funds, 10 counts of wire fraud, five counts of mail fraud and five counts of making false and fraudulent statements. He faces up to life in prison if convicted on all counts.
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U.S. Magistrate Brooke C. Wells set a seven-day trial for Parks to start June 18.
The FBI launched an investigation into Parks after an audit conducted by the Salt Lake County Auditor’s Office said it found discrepancies in funds belonging to the Salt Lake County Community Resources and Development Division’s AmeriCorps program.
Parks’ job duties from 2003 to 2011 included managing, controlling and reconciling AmeriCorps contracts, accounts, funds and grants for the AmeriCorps program in Utah. He is accused of fraud involving five AmeriCorps employees, known as "members," from St. George, whom he gave about $95,000 in overpayments, court documents allege.
Parks allegedly paid members a full-time wage when they were part-time employees; gave them incentives that violated AmeriCorps policies; and fraudulently gave the members living-allowance paychecks, according to court documents.
In addition to his AmeriCorps employment, 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.
Benward allegedly initiated the investigation into Parks’ management after a former employee, 38-year-old Jami Christensen, died of a drug overdose in 2010. Benward, who is Christensen’s sister, brought the allegations of fraud and mismanagement on the part of Parks to the county, saying she’d discovered Christensen had a sexual relationship with Parks and it may have contributed to her death, according to court documents.
The pair had met nearly 30 years before, when she was a troubled student and he was a teacher at a rehabilitation facility.
Parks, who is being represented by defense attorney Rebecca Skordas, will remain out of custody as he awaits trial. Assistant U.S. Attorney Carlos Esqueda told Wells that Parks has been cooperative in the investigation so far.
Parks surrendered his passport at the conclusion of Thursday’s hearing.
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