Police: Charges coming soon in theft from CASA

Nikki Jones

It has been months since CASA of the Sabine Neches Region discovered more than $40,000 missing from its coffers, and no charges have yet been filed against Nikki Jones, the former executive director suspected of the theft by peers within the organization. But according to police, that could change very soon.

“We should be ready to present a case to the district attorney in the next week or two,” Orange Police Department Capt. Robert Enmon told The Examiner on July 21.

Enmon said he had spoken with the detective working the case that very day, and the detective reported he had completed all the necessary interviews and collected the evidence required to present the case to Orange County District Attorney John Kimbrough in hopes it would proceed to a grand jury for indictment.

Enmon previously told The Examiner the department was waiting for CASA to perform and submit a financial audit. The police department does not keep an accountant on staff, he explained, adding that nonprofits generally have their own accountant.

The new executive director for CASA of the Sabine Neches Region, Michelle Jones, who is no relation to the former director, told The Examiner on July 21 that the nonprofit had complied with police directives in order to pursue criminal charges in the case but indicated she could not comment on the ongoing investigation.

“At the current time, this is still an open investigation,” Michelle Jones stated in an email. “We are fully cooperating with investigating authorities, and all requested information has been provided. Due to the sensitive nature of the investigation, we have been advised by authorities not to provide any further comment.”

Nonprofit reports credit card abuse

CASA board members discovered the theft and reported it to police Jan. 31. CASA of the Sabine Neches Region Board President Johnny Trahan and Vice President Kim Dickerson visited the Orange Police Department that day and spoke to Officer Barrett Besser in reference to credit card abuse. According to Besser’s report, Trahan and Dickerson said a known suspect had used a credit card that had not been approved by the charitable organization to, in effect, steal money from CASA.

OPD Captain Robert Enmon told The Examiner on Feb. 6 that police were in the midst of the investigation into the alleged credit card abuse and had determined the nonprofit had been defrauded of at least $10,000. Sources told The Examiner then that the amount was actually much higher. At the time, they had calculated in excess of $40,000 had been stolen from CASA of the Sabine Neches Region.

Even worse, they said, the suspected scammer was a trusted staffer.

Although no formal charges have been made against her and the organization has kept mum regarding the identity of the “known suspect” reported to police, following the discovery of the theft, the board fired Nikki Jones, also known as Elena Nicole Jones, and replaced her.

Sources said Jones had taken measures to conceal and disguise personal purchases, apparently going so far as to create false documentation to cover her tracks.

According to them, CASA was expecting a financial report from executive director Nikki Jones on Jan. 10. They didn’t get it. So they contacted Jones. For days, she failed to respond. When she finally did respond Jan. 13, she gave them what appeared to be the requested documentation. However, upon closer inspection, they found serious discrepancies. The numbers just didn’t add up. CASA called her back to find out why. Nearly a month later, they still had not heard back from her.

So CASA ordered the bank statements, which led them to the discovery of a CASA credit card account with a $2,000 limit that was being paid out of their funds, out of donations. A look at the charges on credit card statements revealed a horrible truth – someone inside CASA was stealing.

The credit card statements reportedly showed numerous cash advances for hundreds of dollars each, many made at casinos including L’Auberge, Isle of Capri and Delta Downs, where thousands in cash was withdrawn over time. The person in possession of the card apparently took vacations on CASA’s dime, with several nights at different hotels from Galveston to Idaho to Tennessee, and plane tickets purchased from American Airlines charged to the cunningly concealed card. Charges from a Carnival cruise paid for in December 2015 with the unauthorized credit card total approximately $4,400. (When requesting vacation time for the trip, Jones reportedly told coworkers she “won” a cruise.) Charges from three different liquor stores add up to $500 over about two years time. Charges from numerous restaurants totaled close to $1,000.

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

They eventually came upon a $4,900 receipt provided by the state CASA office that showed the state office had paid $2,400 and the regional CASA office had paid $2,500 for a financial audit for 2015. CASA requested the audit from the accounting firm on the receipt, but they were in for another awful shock. There had been no audit in 2015. According to Examiner sources, it now appears that Jones may have forged the audit.

Forging ahead

“It took a while,” said Capt. Enmon, “but with financial investigations, especially internal ones, we have to deal with a timeframe, sometimes other people’s timeframe.

“CASA has done everything we’ve asked them to do. This is a criminal investigation, and we have to rely on experts (like accountants). It just takes time. I do believe we’re at the end. We’ll be sending it to the DA’s office in the next week or two.”

Orange County DA Kimbrough said July 25 that, to his knowledge, he had not yet received the case in his office. He said he would take a look at the file once he has it to make sure there are no missing pieces or additional information required to present a case to a grand jury for possible indictment.

If the final amount stolen 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 a state jail institution for no less than 180 days and no more than two years, according to 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 will be up to CASA to prove in court that the credit card charges were not made in service of the organization, a task made easier by expenditures like the cruise, hotel stays and cash withdrawals at casinos.

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

Trahan said the board moved quickly and decisively upon discovery of the theft, reporting it to police and taking measures to prevent future instances.

“We’re back to business as usual, helping and saving children,” Trahan affirmed. “We have a fidelity insurance policy, so we will recover all of the stolen funds. We will be made whole again.”

According to its website, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of the Sabine Neches Region is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that “gives voice to abused and neglected children in Hardin, Jasper, Newton, Orange, Sabine and Tyler counties in Texas.” The regional branch is part of the National CASA Association, a network of more than 900 CASA programs serving children in 49 states and Washington, D.C.

“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,” the website describes.