Cindy Howe appeared in court Monday morning, following more than a year of allegations, investigations and looming consequences after the near collapse of the Sunset Empire Transportation District.
The former executive director, who now resides in Georgia, appeared before Judge Phil Nelson in Clatsop County Circuit Court, with attorney Steve Roman at her side.
Howe is charged with 10 counts of first-degree theft and four counts of official misconduct. A secret grand jury indictment was unsealed as a result of today’s proceedings. It was filed April 2.
“This case is the result of a year-long investigation conducted primarily by agents of the Oregon Department of Justice at my request,” District Attorney Josh Marquis said.
“Four of those counts are for allegations that she received amounts varying between approximately $2,000 and $4,000 a year from 2007 to 2010 for a cruise, which was apparently the result of the bus district buying advertising in the amount of tens-of-thousands of dollars from New Northwest Broadcasters.”
Six additional counts are for six six-month periods during which Howe allegedly provided bus service for outside entities, such as St. Mary, Star of the Sea School.
“‘Donated’ isn’t the right word because she didn’t have the right to do that. But she gave free bus service in the amounts that range from $2,000 to $3,000, where she was a volunteer and her child attended,” Marquis explained.
Seemingly somber, Howe sat quietly, only responding to questions from the judge of her address and phone number.
A resolution conference is scheduled for 3:15 p.m. July 11.
Howe was booked and fingerprinted at the Clatsop County Jail following her arraignment.
Because Howe has no prior criminal history and because she is well-known in the community, Marquis stated to Judge Nelson that he was not opposed to her conditional release until the hearing.
Marquis said Howe’s daughter is still a member of the community. Howe works in a transportation-related business in Georgia, he added, but didn’t know the details.
Howe has been away from the district for more than a year, but the board members are still feeling the aftershocks of her 15-year tenure, during which she built an empire on artificial ground, leaving the district to pay for it with its now-modest operation.
The latest involved an audit at the district, which revealed once again the district’s misspendings and wrong-doings during Howe’s time. One of the most highlighted pieces involved the funding for the Northwest Ride Center, which by law must be kept separate from the district’s funds. Howe was essentially shifting funds around, relying on the ride center to keep the district afloat.
Now-director Jay Flint said the audit report should be the last of it – meaning the district is caught up with the worst of the auditors’ reports. But the district is still working on a three-route schedule and with a lower level of staff members than it had when the district was running smoothly. Some 19 staff members were laid off in April 2011 as the district discovered the budget shortcomings in Howe’s absence and the need to do something fast before the district ceased to exist.
Howe abruptly resigned from the district in January 2011.
An internal personnel audit followed, which revealed reports of Howe as a “bully” in the workplace and details of employees feeling fearful of their leader.
It also revealed personal spending on the district’s credit cards for things like groceries, glasses and clothing.
But among the most serious revelations, were reports of Howe trading bus service for personal gain.
Those included reports of Howe giving free bus trips to Portland for the St. Mary, Star of the Sea School, and trips for the Astor Street Opry Company, where Howe was a member. The auditor also uncovered details of the cruise trip in exchange for district money spent on advertising.
The district has made a recovery, slowly but surely, most recently adding back route 30 to the list of services and route 20 in south county for the summer season. Route 10 and Route 101 are also both operating.