Hundreds of thousands missing? Rumors swirl around former Nederland Heritage Festival executive director
When Nederland Heritage Festival (NHF) executive director Wanda Hollier retired in 2016, speculation swarmed around her rapid exit, and tongues wagged when volunteer coworkers did not throw her the traditional retirement party expected after nearly 20 years of service.
Calls came in to The Examiner both asking why and offering possible explanations. From the many sources willing to speak to The Examiner on the condition of anonymity, a pattern began to emerge: hundreds of thousands of dollars had gone missing from the nonprofit organization over the years.
The Nederland Heritage Festival is a tradition in Southeast Texas. People from across the area and beyond visit the annual event to celebrate a proud heritage and to enjoy the food, drinks and music provided by area nonprofits, local vendors and talented entertainers. The nonprofits involved get a boost in funds from selling a variety of local specialty dishes and thirst-quenching beverages, and attendees can purchase an assortment of collectibles, art and crafts.
Currently though, rumors of theft and a subsequent cover-up circulating throughout the community and on social media are casting a long shadow over the popular event.
Numerous sources claim and The Examiner has confirmed that former Nederland Heritage Festival Foundation executive director Wanda Hollier, who retired last year, left the nonprofit organization only after it was discovered that she had been stealing tens of thousands of dollars a year, totaling several hundred thousand dollars, from the festival during her tenure as manager there, spanning from 1998 to 2016. The Nederland Heritage Festival is a function put on each year by the Nederland Heritage Foundation Inc. and run by an executive director.
The NHF foundation board hired attorney James Wimberley to investigate allegations that Hollier was lining her pockets over and above her agreed salary, and after an investigation revealed the ongoing theft, he reportedly recommended to the board that rather than reporting the theft to police, instead they enter an agreement that would allow the foundation to recover the money in lieu of filing charges. It is said he believed that without a prior record, she may get as little as probation and be ordered to pay restitution of a nominal amount each month, and recovering all or most of the money would be a better option for the good of the foundation.
The board voted on the attorney’s proposal and the majority agreed to recover the money. The actual vote count has not been disclosed by the board.
Wimberley said that when he was hired, his mission was first and foremost to protect the status of the foundation.
“I made recommendations to the board that I feel was best for the organization and I stand by those recommendations,” he said.
Each year, the festival recruits volunteers from the community who sacrifice their time and energy, some actually using annual vacation time from their jobs, to take on innumerable tasks related to the celebration. Two such volunteers reached out to express their disappointment and frustration with how the NHF board handled the purported theft.
In December 2016 and February 2017, The Examiner received anonymous letters from a self-described volunteer of the festival. In the missives, the writer stated the reason behind the correspondence was to “flush out a snake that has stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Nederland Heritage Festival.” The culprit behind that theft, according to the writer, is Wanda Hollier.
“She deserves to be brought to justice for betraying the trust that her community and her co-workers had put in her,” the letter reads. “Why is this being covered up? I can only guess, but it certainly is.”
The writer went on to say the Nederland Police Department was aware of the “heinous crime” but had indicated its hands were tied. Unless the crime was officially reported to police by the governing board, there could be no investigation into the legally private matter – because although NHF Foundation Inc. is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, it is still a private corporation. As such, only its 990s are available for public scrutiny. The tax forms from fiscal year Sept. 1, 2015, through Aug. 31, 2016, the year Hollier resigned, have yet to be filed and are not a matter of public record. But if the theft was as large as indicated by multiple parties, in excess of $250,000 or 5 percent of an organization’s annual gross receipts or total assets, it must be reported on Form 990.
NHF Foundation board member and Nederland Police Chief Darrell Bush said there is more to the story than the swirling rumors tell, but the board must remain mum. He said he could only speak as police chief.
“I assure you there was no cover-up,” Bush said. “The board as a whole would have to choose to pursue a criminal investigation. The board retained Mr. James Wimberley as counsel and let him guide us to make sure we did not violate any IRS rules and did not jeopardize our 501(c)3 status.
“I am not trying to be evasive. I really can’t say anything more about the matter. There was an agreement made by the board. … Anything talked about must go through Mr. Wimberley.”
Other questions have arisen during this newspaper’s investigation. Just how much money was actually missing? And how much was paid back?
Due to a presumed confidentiality agreement between the board and Hollier and certain nonprofit exemptions from public information requests, those questions are not easily answered.
A festival volunteer says she was told by city staff privy to inside knowledge that board member and husband of Wanda, Joseph “Alton” Hollier, paid back hundreds of thousands of dollars in an attempt to save his wife from prosecution. He reportedly paid back nearly $300,000, but that’s not even close to as much as she allegedly stile over a 10-year period.
One person told The Examiner that Hollier had attempted to justify some suspicious purchases made using the NHF credit card, but the volunteer said a receipt in Hollier’s truck told a different story. According to her, Hollier’s former co-worker spotted a receipt from Victoria’s Secret – definitely, she ventured, not a festival-related expenditure. One source said she “ran the festival like it was her own so I guess she spent the money like it was her own.” As with many of the thefts The Examiner reports on from non-profits, gambling is also alleged.
“Everybody knows about the theft, and a lot of people in town are upset because charges were not filed,” said the volunteer. “Her husband paid back over $200,000 out of his retirement, and that is just what was paid back. There’s no telling how much money she actually stole over the years. She stole from the festival, and she stole from the city. How much manpower does the city provide for the festival? A lot. They provide police and help with cleanup. Another volunteer said she heard not a single board member would spit on Wanda if she was on fire, but stated she would never have voted for the deal they made and hoped the IRS will look at her tax returns.
“That board certainly can’t make a deal for the IRS if she didn’t claim that money she stole,” she said.
Kathi Hughes, executive director of the Ben J. Rogers Regional Visitors Center, handles Hotel Occupancy Tax funds requests from different entities in Jefferson County. She said the NHF requested HOT funds in the amount of $2,025 in 2010 for advertising expenses with KTLC in Lake Charles and the Spring Bazaar magazine from the Houston Chronicle. In 2011, they requested $945 for the Spring Bazaar.
Chris Duque, Nederland city manager, said the NHF receives no HOT funds from the city itself. According to him, HOT funds are used to maintain museums in the city. He added that though no money is exchanged between the city and the NHF, the city does supply police officers for security at the festival, and the sanitation department provides trash services.
“It’s felony theft,” the volunteer assessed. “I don’t understand why the board is covering this up. I’m tired of things like this getting swept under the rug. What kind of example is this setting? It’s wrong.”
It may be wrong, according to many of the festival supporters and volunteers, but it is the law, said Jefferson County District Attorney Bob Wortham.
“I’m not going to speak to this particular allegation, but I will say if a law is broken, we will certainly prosecute to the fullest extent of the law,” he explained. “Just paying a victim back does not make a crime disappear. But we must have a complaint, and it must be properly investigated to proceed with any charges against any alleged criminal.”
At the time of Hollier’s departure, NHF Foundation President and Principal Officer Mike Laird credited Hollier with the festival’s growth over time and explained away the lack of a retirement celebration by implying that she just didn’t want the recognition. Laird could not be reached for comment related to this article, but board members say he was doing as recommended by the board’s attorney.
In researching this story, The Examiner discovered that there are actually two boards involved with the festival. The Nederland Heritage Festival has a board made up of volunteers who run the mechanics of the festival each year. The current chairman of that board is Todd Hollier, son of Joseph Alton Hollier and stepson by marriage of Wanda Hollier. Then there is the Nederland Festival “Foundation” led by Mike Laird as president, and it handles the finances and grants scholarships.
Executive Director Shannon Hemby, who replaced Wanda Hollier and is the sole paid employee of both organizations, works for the foundation and confirmed Todd Hollier has been NHF executive board chairman, an unpaid position, since April 2016 – prior to Wanda’s resignation in June 2016. According to the foundation, Todd Hollier stepped aside the moment allegations surfaced about Wanda and didn’t return until she resigned and the investigation was complete.
When The Examiner visited Alton and Wanda Hollier’s home in Nederland, Todd answered the door and said they didn’t want to be interviewed before driving away in his vehicle.
Alton was on the NHF Foundation board and managed the country music show at the festival. He is Wanda’s husband, but the NHF Foundation 990s give no indication of that, although they should. In Section A, Governing Body and Management, the Form 990 asks, “Did any officer, director, trustee, or key employee have a family relationship or a business relationship with any other officer, director, trustee, or key employee?” Year after year, when Alton was listed as a director on the board and Wanda was still executive director – a key employee – the NHF Foundation answered, “No,” although the two were married.
Alton is no longer on the board, and there was no county music show at the festival this year, Hemby said.
James Wimberly, at press time, said he was working on a statement to explain the foundation’s side of things but any statement would have to first be approved by the board. He did say that this was a record year for the festival, and that the board has instituted policies and procedures that they believe will not only protect — but in a very short time span have already proven to save — the foundation money and will allow the foundation to continue the positive contribution in their community.