August 2014

Starr King Open Space Remains Hobbled by Embezzlement

Keith Burbank

Roughly five years ago, a Starr King Open Space (SKOS) board member stole at least $100,000 from the nonprofit.  Susanne Shields sat on the board of the organization, which manages a three-acre natural area adjacent to Starr King Elementary School. Shields served as board secretary from 2001 until 2009. Court documents indicate that during that period Shields diverted money from the nonprofit’s account to pay her mortgage. 

“Our money went down with her house,” said Webb Green, a Starr King Open Space board member. Shield’s 1015 Carolina Street home was forced into foreclosure in 2008. San Francisco Superior Court ordered a civil judgment brought by SKOS against Shields and her husband, Ralph Hunter, in 2012. But neither Shields nor Hunter have made any payments towards the judgment.  In the meantime, Starr King Open Space struggles to pay its bills, including those related to repairing sidewalks adjacent to the natural area that were tagged by the San Francisco Department of Public Works.  

“We’ve been scrambling for money ever since Shields stole it, ” Green said. After the theft, while the nonprofit reformulated its board, Starr King Open Space had just $103 in its bank account. According to Green, the nonprofit tried to sell the judgment against Shields to a bounty hunter, but “nobody wanted to give us anything for it.” 

“This [theft from nonprofits] is a nationwide problem and crisis,” said Stephen Williams, the San Francisco attorney who handled the civil case against Shields on behalf of the Open Space. According to Williams, Shields confessed to the theft. The nonprofit also pursued a criminal case against Shields, but nothing resulted from the effort.

The Court judgment against Shields amounts to more than $149,000, which includes $130,000 in damages. According to a declaration by a former board member, “numerous phone calls and letters” to Shields were required before she agreed to turn over the nonprofit’s accounting records.  

“In reviewing the records of Starr King Open Space it became clear to me that from approximately January of 2005 to January of 2007 approximately $130,000.00 had been drained from the organization’s bank accounts,” the declaration states. “All of the records I reviewed showed that the approximately $130,000.00 was being withdrawn by Defendant Susanne K. Shields.” 

The declaration confirmed that the money was used to pay Shields’ residential mortgage, and added that there are no minutes or votes indicating Shields was authorized to pay her loan with the funds. During the period in which she was stealing the money, Shields told board members she’d invested it, a story they found credible.   

On July 16, 2009, the court declaration states, a board member confronted Shields about the missing money, and she confessed to taking it. Shields said she took between $103,000 and $105,000 from Starr King Open Space’s general fund. It is unclear why the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) did not arrest Shields at that point. 

The case was investigated, but at a certain point it was de-activated,” said Sergeant Danielle Newman, media relations, SFPD. “That means that the case was still open, but it was de-activated pending any further investigative leads. There was a request for further records, but it does not appear those records were received.” According to Newman, on two occasions the police department reassigned the case because officers retired. 

Within the last year, a former board member received calls from both SFPD and the San Francisco District Attorney’s (DA) Office. Both were interested in the case. “I was excited,” they said. But the criminal case’s statute of limitations expired on July 21, 2013.

“The last investigator did present the case to the District Attorney’s Office,” Newman said. “The DA’s Office requested ‘official custodial records,’ but those records were not received and the statute of limitations ran out.”

 “It [the SFPD’s investigation] never went anywhere,” said a former board member, who asked not to be identified. He thinks the police lacked manpower, since the theft was discovered at the beginning of the Great Recession. As he recalled, the police refused to pursue the criminal case after Starr King Open Space opted to open the civil case. Board members decided to sue before the civil case’s three-year statute of limitations expired

“The real crime was the cops,” said Williams. 


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