AUSTIN (KXAN) - Hotels, restaurants, bars, and liquor stores are not exactly the places you might think someone would be shopping for needy children.
But a KXAN investigation reveals the president of the Christmas Bureau of Austin - Travis County may have been using donations meant for poor families as his own personal funds.
Authorities from the Texas Attorney General's Office and the Austin Police Department have been investigating whether Christmas Bureau President Shon Washington defrauded the charity he was overseeing.
Today Shon Washington was indicted on two felony charges: Theft from Non-Profit and False Statement to Obtain Credit. His bond is set at $75,000.
KXAN began investigating Washington and the Christmas Bureau in November just as Austin police began its investigation in to the troubled charity.
Just weeks before last Christmas, no one at APD or Blue Santa had heard from Washington or anyone else with the Christmas Bureau. For decades it has been one of Austin's most relied-upon holiday charities, working with APD’s Blue Santa and the Travis County Sheriff's Office’s Brown Santa programs to help poor families have a happy holiday season.
Washington told KXAN at the time that his charity was out of money and that he was scrambling for donations and office space.
A few days before Christmas 2010, Washington told KXAN his charity needed more donations to help serve some 1,800 families applying for help. He was was considered the “Santa Claus of the Christmas Bureau.”
But that was then.
Now, according to court records reviewed by KXAN, Washington may have actually been the Christmas Grinch.
Mingling funds from separate charities
As it turns out, after taking over the Christmas Bureau of Austin – Travis County, Washington combined the Christmas Bureau bank account with that of another charity he started, the CRC Fellowship, according to search warrant affidavits filed by Austin Police Detective Billy Petty.
“Between October 2010 and May of 2011, about $30,000 was used out of the Christmas Bureau account that appeared to be suspicious,” Petty told KXAN.
Meanwhile, Washington was on KXAN in November 2012 pleading for donations. But newly surfaced records show he had already spent thousands that had been donated in the months before.
“The money that we usually have to start up is, is, nothing,” Washington told us at the time.
But court records show $26,067 was received in the previous three months through the Christmas Bureau’s PayPal account.
Petty has been investigating possible charges of misapplication of fiduciary property against Washington.
Asked if the search warrants suggested that Shon Washington was using the Christmas Bureau account as his own bank account, Petty replied at the time: “It does give that appearance. Yes it does.”
Following the paper trail
Bank records for the CRC Fellowship / Christmas Bureau of Austin – Travis County filed in the probate case initiated by the Texas Attorney General’s office show a bizarre pattern of spending dating back to 2010.
And according search warrant affidavits filed in Washington’s pending drug possession case, Washington spent the charity’s money making his car payments, going to entertainment venues, eating at restaurants, and staying in hotels outside of Austin.
The affidavits show that Washington also used forged or fictitious documents to obtain cash loans.
Washington spent Christmas Bureau donations at liquor stores and pawn shops, and also paid his home utility bills for his home in Bastrop, the records show.
Asked of the utility bills from outside of Austin appeared suspicious, Petty replied. “Utility bills being paid to companies that do not service the city of Austin is suspicious.”
Also suspicious were the thousands of dollars in cash Washington withdrew from the CRC Fellowship / Christmas Bureau account and cashier’s checks totaling $6,500 payable to Time Auto Sales after Christmas in 2011.
“Many of the expenses that were paid for out of the Christmas Bureau were paid for the self-enrichment of Shon (Washington) and his family and that enrichment was unjust,” Petty told KXAN.
'I feel sad for the recipients. I feel disgusted'
The news of Washington’s arrest and the Christmas Bureau’s troubles is heart-breaking for Christmas Bureau donors trying to help those in need.
“You know, you've got to wonder what kind of person would do that,” said Elizabeth Messer, a loyal donor to the charity.
Messer wrote a $1,500 check to the Christmas Bureau of Austin – Travis County in December of 2011. She thought her donation would help single mothers who couldn’t afford Christmas for their kids.
“I feel sad for the recipients,” said Messer. “I feel disgusted,” she continued.
Messer and her family were reliable Christmas Bureau donors going all the way back to 1999.
“We would get the binders, the folders and we would go through and read every one and really think about who we wanted to donate to,” Messer said.
But that check she wrote to the charity in December 2011 was her last.
“In 2010, it didn't feel right- it just didn't feel right,” Messer described her feelings as she dropped off the donation check.
And Messer’s gut feeling was right on, considering Washington is now accused of using Christmas Bureau money on himself and his family.
Some might say Washington was the last person who should have been running a charity collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations. His criminal record is lengthy with numerous convictions for theft. He’s also been convicted of forgery, burglary, credit card abuse, and drug possession.
Despite his criminal history, Washington was able to become president of a charity affiliated with two of the largest law enforcement agencies in Central Texas.
Washington was most recently arrested in December following a traffic stop when he was found to be in possession of methamphetamine, according to his arrest warrant affidavit.
Only months before, in August of 2012 he was arrested at Sugar’s, a local strip club, for possession of methamphetamine. Washington is still in the Travis County Jail for the December arrest.
Where were the red flags?
No one with the Austin Police Department or with its Blue Santa program were familiar with Washington’s history before his troubles were uncovered by KXAN.
“I’d call it a lackluster board that they had that were not looking after what they needed to,” said Joe Munoz, a former police officer who has led APD’s Blue Santa program for years. “We have those boards in place for each of those organizations to make sure things like this do not happen.”
But Washington appointed himself as president of the Christmas Bureau, his wife as director and also appointed his brother and sister-in-law to the charity’s board of directors.
“Well, on the Blue Santa side, it’s been learned by us that we have to stay on top of changes, we have to stay on top of anything suspicious from our board members,” said Munoz. “We have policies and by laws in place to make sure that this type of thing does not happen to us.”
Munoz also says it’s inexcusable that no one bothered to check Washington’s past until KXAN pulled his criminal record last November.
Making changes, moving forward
"Blue Santa is proactive,” said Munoz. “All our board members are screened. They all go through background checks, in fact we do it once a year now.”
So what happened in the case of Shon Washington?
“Shon Washington is someone, in my opinion was looking after himself and not those in need,” Munoz said.
“Why do you do this?” we asked Munoz. “It’s those kids,” he responded. “You go to that door and there's people counting on you to show up with all they may have for Christmas,” he explained.
And that's why it's important to so many that the mission of the Christmas Bureau lives on even if the court decides to shut it down. Munoz says Blue Santa is prepared to carry out that mission.
“We have a plan in place if in fact the Christmas Bureau is dissolved, Operation Blue Santa will step in and make sure those kids have a Christmas this year,” said Munoz.
And that's music to the ears of the families who rely on the kindness of others like Elizabeth Messer.
“We were sad because it took the joy away from the recipients and especially the children and single mothers of having a Christmas and it took away our joy of being able to provide that for them,” said Messer.
While Washington is sitting in jail on drug charges, with new felony charges pending, The Texas Attorney General's office seized the charity's assets back in December. A Travis County probate judge will soon decide if the Christmas Bureau will be completely dissolved.
If convicted on the 2nd defree felony charge of Theft from Non-Profit, Washington could face up to 20 years in prison. The charge of False Statement to Obtain Credit is a state jail felony.
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