Embezzlement saps funds from the Council of Magickal Arts

Terence P Ward —  September 7, 2016 — 10 Comments

FORT WORTH, Texas –Members of the Council of Magickal Arts, or CMA, are standing up to help make the organization whole after it was discovered that its director of finance, Alicia Wilson, had reportedly spent more than $4,000 out of operating funds on personal purchases. Wilson was elected to the position at the Texas-based council’s annual Samhain festival last year. The first unauthorized purchase occurred less than three months later, on January 25, 2016.

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The embezzlement represents about half of CMA’s operating budget, according Megan Dobson, the council’s interim director of communications. Even so, plans for Samhain 2016 continue unabated.

“Far from being imperiled, it promises to be an outstanding festival,” Dobson said. “We will be welcoming internationally-published author and activist M. Macha Nightmare as our featured guest speaker . . . it’s all coming together to create an amazing event!”

According to the official account, Wilson embezzled $4,160.22 between late January and April 29, when corporate officer Gary Parks discovered the unauthorized charges. While past directors of finance provided board members with read-only access to financial information, this was one of several practices that Wilson had not reportedly followed. CMA bylaws require that generally-accepted accounting principles (GAAP) be used, “but they do not dictate a specific system,” explained Dobson.

“The financial system previously in place had not been passed as official policy; a set of procedures and guidelines was passed on from one director of finance to the next. Ms. Wilson changed the system by writing all the checks herself, and, as a result, the previous practice of oversight was circumvented.”

This Samhain, CMA members will be asked to vote on a package of reforms to prevent that situation from happening again. “The new system requires that one person writes the checks, a second person keeps the books, and the director of finance is responsible for overseeing both persons. Additionally, the entire board of directors has access to view the accounts and the accounting software system at any time,” said Dobson.

Spirithaven, CMA's grounds 2002 [Courtesy Wren / Witchvox]

Spirithaven, CMA’s dedicated grounds 2002 [Photo Credit: Wren / Witchvox]

While the unauthorized withdrawals did take place over several months, once discovered the reaction was both swift and transparent. Wilson was reportedly removed from all accounts and asked to explain her actions. After claiming that she had inadvertently used the wrong card to make purchases, she reportedly said that she would reimburse the CMA account on May 1.

That payment was not forthcoming, and Wilson resigned from the board for “personal reasons” May 5. D. Blaze Johnson, a prior finance director, was made Wilson’s interim replacement a few days later. By May 13, she had confirmed how much money was missing. With that information, board members agreed to hire an attorney, and it notified the full membership May 29, which happened to be the same day that a town hall meeting was already scheduled.

By the time of that meeting, Wilson had reportedly signed a restitution agreement under which she would pay $300 monthly. If it is not kept, the remainder of those funds — presently on the books as a debt owed — will be re-characterized as an “excess benefit transaction,” and Wilson will be hit with a 25% excise tax on that sum.

In addition, on May 29, board members suspended Wilson’s CMA membership for a year and a day. In October, the full membership will decide if that is sufficient, or if other sanctions should be considered.

Nevertheless, board members have acknowledged that this incident was likely preventable. “The situation should never have been allowed to occur in the first place and the board has taken immediate steps to ensure that it never happens again,” said Dobson. Those steps include the institution of new policies expected to be ratified this October.

“Institutional knowledge from past boards concerning checks and balances on the director of finance was lost,” a situation which the new rules should prevent.

“No system is perfect, and a determined thief will find a way,” said Dobson. “However, the new system is now codified, has more checks and balances, and will allow future boards to identify a problem, if there is one, early on.”

Members of the council have rallied to keep the organization whole, as Dobson recounted, “The recent Phoenix Rising benefit concert, masterfully organized by our Austin Area Lead Representative, raised approximately $1,600 to replace the monies lost. Shortly after the embezzlement loss was reported to our membership, two members approached me; they said that they’d been considering buying a lifetime membership for a while, and that now seemed like the time that CMA needed it most. Between the benefit, the lifetime memberships, and smaller donations made by individual members, we have at this point been able to replace all the stolen funds. It’s been amazing, watching our community come together in support of CMA and its future.”

TWH was unable to locate Ms. Wilson for comment, but she did submit a report to the council’s newsletter, The Accord, for its spring 2016 issue. In addition to updating members on a variety of routine expenses, she wrote, “I am working diligently to get to the transparency that the membership wants and so do we.”

Terence P Ward

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Terence P Ward is a moneyworker, journalist, Hellenic polytheist and convinced Friend who lives in the bucolic Hudson Valley with his wife, five cats, and multiple household shrines.
  • kenofken

    “Other sanctions”…..Um, hello…criminal prosecution!! A group that just lets this ride doesn’t deserve another chance.

    • Jules Morrison

      I wouldn’t involve the cops for a number of reasons. They are already getting their money back. Reduce the harm, don’t increase it.

      • kenofken

        They’re not getting anything back so far. They have a note from someone who has neither the honor nor the apparent means to make good on it. Embezzled money is rarely recovered because it is almost always spent on things the embezzler could not afford. Even if the terms are met, the “punishment” is effectively a 2-year interest free loan.

  • ruth01

    It seems they got caught with their pants down. When money is involved, there are no friends.

    • Travis

      When it is theft from a struggling non profit, friendship is not an affordable luxury. It was not theft from just CMA. It was theft of my donations, my friends donations, the money we had saved and gave in good faith to go towards maintaining our land.

  • This kind of occurrence is far more common than most Pagans realize. It actually sounds as if the CMA had better procedures in place than most of our organizations do even before this incident… It’s very easy to sit in judgment, but there are never enough qualified money folks to volunteer either to keep the books or keep tabs on those who do. And it’s always a nasty surprise to discover that someone you trusted has been cheating the organization you’ve been working hard for yourself. This one is no fun to clean up after.

    I’ve got nothing but respect for how the CMA is dealing with this.

  • Any group with cash assets is bound to encounter the embezzlement issue sooner or later. I’m a new-ish member of CMA, and it’s embarrassing and frustrating to see this behavior from an officer. Overall, though, I feel that CMA’s leadership has been quick and fair in dealing with the problem. We’ve seen our Texas Pagan community really come together to raise funds and carry on in service. And (barring a pesky burn ban) we’ll be dancing around the fire at Samhain!

  • Wolfsbane

    About twenty years ago, I caught a board member of a (non Pagan) group embezzling money from a group of which I was a member. We shared running a subgroup of the organization. The organization had a meeting entrance fee that was different for members and non member. She was marking down non members as members and pocketing the difference.

    I reported it to the board as soon as I figured out what she was doing. Nothing happened to her because she was part of one of the two power blocs in the organization and on the board. They covered it up. She was subsequently reelected to the board for several more times and is still a emeritus member of the board and well thought of in the community.

    This sort of thing should surprise no one.

    I’m glad the Council of Magickal Arts revealed this person’s dishonor to the greater community. But they should have made this a police matter as well.

  • Franklin_Evans

    As a former and recently invited future member of a Pagan non-profit governing body — it doesn’t matter if it’s a “committee” or “board” when money is involved — I sincerely recommend giving the CMA board the benefit of the doubt here. Yes, personal relationships too often sour the professional conduct of a group, but not always and not always as the sole reason. One thing from personal experience: giving the miscreant a chance to fully repay the funds, and publicly documenting the effort, is very powerful evidence in a civil trial in support of their plaintiff claims. If she fails to honor the effort, she stands an excellent chance of having her credit and employability directly damaged. Also, and this is not professional advice, just things learned along the way, a criminal charge is going to be a waste of time given the amount of money involved. Yes, it should be prosecuted if brought to the local DA, but it would be dead last on their priority list of cases.

  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    So she got a $4,160 loan, interest free, to be paid over many months? That’s nice work if you can get it.