Orange CASA fires executive director after discovering credit card irregularities

Nikki Jones

Up to $40,000 is missing from CASA of the Sabine Neches Region in Orange and, while no one has yet been charged, Executive Director Nikki Jones was fired following the revelation that a CASA credit card was used for cash advances at casinos and to pay for a lavish cruise, luxury hotel stays and other extravagances.

Stealing is a harmful crime that, by definition, invariably affects one or more victims, and the offense is all the more detrimental when it impacts a charity and, thereby, an even greater number of victims, especially when those casualties include the community’s most innocent and helpless members – children.

A 501(c)3, nonprofit organization, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of the Sabine Neches Region advocates for abused and neglected children in Hardin, Jasper, Newton, Orange, Sabine and Tyler counties in Texas, giving them “a voice” in court and the foster care system. It is part of the National CASA Association, a network of more than 900 CASA programs serving children in 49 states and Washington, D.C.

“Every day, thousands of children in the United States are beaten, molested, humiliated and forgotten,” reads the CASA website. “The trauma these children experience is so great, and communicating their needs to the people who can help is yet another hurdle to cross.

“That’s where we come in. Without CASA, a child spends an average two years bouncing around from place to place in the foster care system. Our volunteers speak on behalf of these children with the goal of guiding them to safe and permanent homes.”

Fulfilling children’s needs is the nonprofit’s CASA’s primary goal, but sadly, sources say, the organization was unwittingly fulfilling Jones’ wishes and whims for about two years, as she made cash advances at casinos, banks and ATMs, and went on multiple vacations at the expense of unknowing donors.

The police report

Officer Barrett Besser of the Orange Police Department (OPD) reported that CASA of the Sabine Neches Region Board President Johnny Trahan and Vice President Kim Dickerson visited the police station Jan. 31 in reference to credit card abuse. According to the police report, they told the officer that a known suspect had used a credit card that they did not approve to steal money from CASA.

OPD Captain Robert Enmon told The Examiner on Feb. 6 that police are in the midst of the theft investigation and have determined that in excess of $10,000 is missing from the nonprofit. Sources indicate the amount stolen so far is actually in excess of $40,000. If the final amount is determined to fall between $1,500 and $20,000, the perpetrator would be charged with state jail felony level theft, meaning a conviction would result in a fine not to exceed $10,000 and confinement in state jail institution for no less than 180 days and no more than two years, according to the Texas Penal Code. If the amount is more than $20,000 but less than $100,000, the accused would face a third-degree felony charge, with stiffer sentencing guidelines – a fine not to exceed $10,000 and confinement in Texas Department of Corrections for no less than two years and no more than 10 years.

It’s up to CASA to prove the credit card charges were not made in service of the organization, but with numerous expenditures such as the cruise, hotel stays and cash withdrawals at casinos, the final total is likely to be substantial, possibly even more than the estimated $40,000.

“It was well in excess of $10,000,” said Johnny Trahan, the CASA of the Sabine Neches Region board president who reported the theft to police. “We’re not sure about the final total. It’s still under investigation.”

Trahan said that once the theft was discovered, the board moved quickly.

“As soon as we knew what was going on, we took it straight to the police,” he explained.

The board also fired Nikki Jones, also known as Elena Nicole Jones, and replaced her.

“We’re back to business as usual, helping and saving children,” Trahan affirmed.

“The board acted fast because that’s our job,” said CASA of the Sabine Neches Region Treasurer Joe Tant. “None of our kids in our program suffered, and that’s the most important thing. We do have a fidelity policy through Philadelphia that covers up to $133,000 in losses.”

That’s definitely enough to replace the stolen funds, and Tant said CASA is diligently working to recover every dime.

“We trusted her, and she abused that trust,” said Tant. “She snowballed us.”

The allegations

Sources say Jones weaved an intricate web of deceit to hide and mask her purchases, going so far as to create a false report for an audit that never happened.

Examiner sources indicate CASA was expecting a financial report from Jones on Jan. 10. When it was not received, CASA contacted Jones, who was the executive director for the Sabine Neches Region. For days, Jones failed to respond. When she finally responded and provided the requested documentation Jan. 13, the numbers just didn’t add up. There were serious discrepancies. CASA called her back to find out why. They have not heard from her since.

So CASA ordered the bank statements, which led them to the discovery of a CASA credit card account with a $2,000 limit. It appears that donation checks written to CASA were being credited toward the credit card balance rather than deposited into the general account. A look at the charges on the credit card statement revealed a horrible truth – someone inside CASA was stealing. Numerous cash advances for hundreds of dollars each are listed, many made at casinos including Delta Downs, where thousands in cash was withdrawn over time, L’Auberge and Isle of Capri. There are charges for several nights at different hotels from Galveston to Idaho to Tennessee and for plane tickets purchased from American Airlines. She apparently spent about $500 at three different liquor stores over two years time. Charges from a multitude of restaurants total close to $1,000. Charges from a Carnival Cruise paid for in December 2015 total approximately $4,400. (When requesting vacation time for the trip, Jones reportedly told coworkers she “won” a cruise.)

The board suspended Jones  on Jan. 19, the day after finding out about the unauthorized charges. They contacted Texas CASA the following day to let them know about the suspected fraud. And then they kept digging.

The state CASA office provided a receipt for $4,900, $2,400 paid by the state and $2,500 from the regional CASA office, for a financial audit for 2015. When CASA requested the audit from the accounting firm on the receipt, they were in for another awful shock. There was no audit in 2015. It appears now that Jones forged the audit documentation.

The Examiner has also discovered two GoFundMe accounts created by Jones that claim to benefit CASA. While it is yet to be determined who the actual beneficiary is, the total amount raised between the two accounts is about $1,650.

What happens next?

CASA is currently assisting the Orange Police Department with its investigation into the theft, and police said they would question the known suspect and possibly pursue charges, pending the results of the felony theft investigation.

As for CASA, Trahan said they have increased financial controls and taken measures to recoup their losses.

“We have been taking steps to ensure this doesn’t happen again,” Trahan promised.

“We appointed Michelle Jones as interim executive director, and she has really done an outstanding job for us… We will continue to move quickly and appoint a new executive director Friday (Feb. 10). We’re still taking care of all of our kids, and we will continue to take care of them.”

Michelle Jones (no relation to Nikki Jones) has been a volunteer supervisor at CASA’s Jasper office for about eight years. She is expected to be appointed executive director Feb. 10, pending review of applications.

Attempts to reach Nikki Jones for comment were unsuccessful.