2017-07-28 / Front Page

Nonprofit suspends operations

Foundation was spearheading Under One Roof
By Melissa Simon

NO LONGER—A sign describing the planned Under One Roof facility stands inside 3855-A Alamo St. in January 2016, when construction crews were working to improve the interior. After a year of financial troubles, the Simi Valley Community Foundation is no longer planning to open the center, and the city is now in talks with Kaiser Foundation Hospitals to take over the building. ACORN FILE PHOTO NO LONGER—A sign describing the planned Under One Roof facility stands inside 3855-A Alamo St. in January 2016, when construction crews were working to improve the interior. After a year of financial troubles, the Simi Valley Community Foundation is no longer planning to open the center, and the city is now in talks with Kaiser Foundation Hospitals to take over the building. ACORN FILE PHOTO The Simi Valley Community Foundation, which for eight years had been spearheading the creation of an Under One Roof human services building in the city, has officially suspended its operations.

The suspension came the same week that Joanne Abruzzese, the former executive director of the nonprofit, admitted to stealing nearly $45,000 from the foundation. She was sentenced July 20 to six months in jail and five years’ probation.

Abruzzese, 59, of Simi Valley had worked for the foundation from 2012 to April 2016. She served as executive director from May 2014 to January 2016, during which she time wrote checks from the nonprofit’s account to pay her home mortgage company, according to the Ventura County district attorney’s office.

Jarrod DeGonia, chair of the nonprofit’s board, said the embezzlement was a “big wakeup call” for the foundation, which has helped dozens of local charities since it was founded in 2000.

Now the nonprofit is suspending operations in order to improve some of its administrative and logistical practices, including financial oversight, DeGonia said.

“In the past, we all had the opportunity to review the books, but what we’ve come to realize is that we weren’t asking the right questions or for the right document s ,” he said. “Now we know what we should’ve been looking at and that we should’ve been paying closer attention to bank statements and other financial records aside from what was being provided to us.”

DeGonia confirmed that Abruzzese repaid the roughly $45,000 she stole prior to her July 20 sentencing and that the funds have been deposited into the nonprofit’s account. The foundation board, he said, will ultimately decide what to do with the funds moving forward.

Uncertain future

The foundation had been the guiding force behind the city’s long-planned Under One Roof project, a one-stop shop for health and human services that had been slated for a city-owned building at 3855-A Alamo St.

The project hit a wall in July 2016 after the community foundation discovered evidence of “financial malfeasance” in its books and reported its findings to police, prompting the Ventura County district attorney’s office to launch an investigation. The probe concluded with Abruzzese’s Feb. 15 arrest.

The city is now in talks with Kaiser Foundation Hospitals to lease or purchase the Alamo Street building. Should Kaiser take over, it would mark the hospital group’s second location in Simi.

Following the “dark and tumultuous year that led to the destruction of the foundation’s credibility,” DeGonia said, the organization has been in a state of limbo.

“We weren’t certain what the future of the foundation was going to be, so we needed to wait for the investigation and judicial process to be finished.

“Now that it’s done, we need to step back, gather ourselves and determine what our future looks like.”

DeGonia said the decision whether to move ahead with Under One Roof ultimately lies with the foundation’s board, especially since the nonprofit has put a significant amount of money and work into the Alamo Street building.

The money that has been donated specifically for Under One Roof can be handled one of three ways, per state law. The foundation can return it to the donors, invest it in another nonprofit, or begin operating again, DeGonia said.

“The big question is how do we ethically and morally use that money? The obvious answer is we’ll probably give it to the Free Clinic (of Simi Valley) for its Royal Avenue project,” DeGonia said.

The Free Clinic of Simi Valley, which originally planned to be the anchor tenant of the Under One Roof facility, pulled away from the project earlier this year and is now working to open a multi-services center at 2003 Royal Ave, a building owned by the County of Ventura that used to house the Ventura County Human Services Agency.

“But that decision (of how to spend the money) still has to be discussed between our two boards and that’s why I always hesitate to say Under One Roof is for sure dead,” DeGonia said.

“Now, will the foundation undertake the project? Not at this time.”

Despite the events of the past year, DeGonia said the foundation’s board feels strongly that there is still a need for the nonprofit.

“My hope is that no matter how we move forward, whether it’s dissolving the foundation or coming back stronger, the board members’ reputations stay intact and the community can see that we’re trying to be as open and transparent as possible,” he said.

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