The fate of former Fourth and Hope Executive Director Leona Jull remains in the hands of a Yolo County jury, after both sides delivered closing remarks on Friday morning. The jury went home late Friday afternoon and will continue its deliberations on Monday.
Ms. Jull is charged with one count of Grand Theft by embezzlement and is accused of stealing more than $30,000 through the use of the company credit card while serving as executive director of the Fourth and Hope homeless shelter.
While Deputy DA Jennifer McHugh made the argument that the thefts represented a pattern of behavior – using assets from the non-profit that she had authority over and access to for personal gain, the jury was also instructed that they could find for a lesser included offense of petty theft. Grand theft requires the amount stolen to exceed $950 and to demonstrated that when the defendant used the money, the she “intended” to deprive the owner of it permanently or temporarily.
Ms. McHugh told the jury that Fourth and Hope did not need a credit card policy in place to tell Ms. Jull it was wrong to use money intended to help the homeless to buy personal items.
Fourth and Hope entrusted her with their funds, they gave the 14-year executive director access to the company credit card, company vehicles, and other sources of funding and assets.
Ms. McHugh argued that, while they might have caught the crimes sooner had the board been paying more attention to the credit card receipts, the crime was committed nevertheless. She used a position of trust to benefit herself and that no credit card policy was needed to prove this point.
She argued that had these been legitimate purchases, the defendant would have turned over receipts to prove this.
Ms. McHugh would go down a long list of items that she argued were purchased for personal use. There was a marine battery for a boat that was purchased for $109 – Fourth and Hope, she argued, did not own a boat. She cited a $97.80 purchase at Tahoe Joe’s in Roseville that the defendant spent on a meal with her boyfriend. Ms. McHugh cited numerous donations that went to her house and testimony that stated that she took some of the best donations for herself and the rest went to the homeless.
She argued that she purchased a cell phone and paid $677.67 in cell phone bills for her boyfriend’s daughter’s personal use. There was a $257 Direct TV purchase, and $200 for her front door.
She cited a $106 AAA towing for her personal vehicle, and $108 for an inflatable tow raft. She claimed she was told she could spent $1000 to fix her own car, and $796 for tires.
There was also the sofa that she purchased for $604 which she claimed she reimbursed to Fourth and Hope. Ms. McHugh pointed out that, under the law, it is still embezzlement, theft, even if you return it or pay the money back.
She cited $26.96 for vacation fishing tackle supplies, around $120 for chlorination tablets and $308.95 for a citation while on vacation.
She argued that this list alone shows over $4000 of money intended for the homeless that Ms. Jull spent on herself. “It is all right to take money for the starving and the needy and use it to pay for personal luxuries?” she asked the jury. “Is this legal?”
Defense Attorney Robbin Coker pushed back in her closing, arguing that, while everyone considered Leona Jull a great executive director who moved the organization from around a $400,000 one to one with over $2 million in net assets, this case is simply about revenge where Chris Gutierrez went to the board after not getting promoted to Assistant Director and blew the whistle.
He did not show up as a witness in the trial, after being terminated himself for having inappropriate conduct with a client. Ms. Coker argued that when he came forward to the board, no one asked the defendant what was going on or asked her to explain what happened.
Ms. Jull was suddenly, without notice, escorted off the property and locked out from the system. Therefore, whatever receipts there were, she had no access to.
Ms. Coker portrayed an organization, with board members who had two year terms and an executive director who had been around 14 years, as playing fast and loose with money and assets, having poor bookkeeping, and having so many commitments that led the bookkeeper as well as the CFO to have to chase receipts – not just from Ms. Jull but from all employees.
Much of her closing was spent attempting to debunk and explain claims made by the prosecution that purchases were done for personal reasons.
For instance, Ms. Jull was accused of buying a battery for her boat but the battery that the officer found when he searched her home was not the same one that she was accused of purchasing for herself with the company credit card.
Where’s the battery? Ms. Coker would ask. She said the simple answer for why they never found it is that Ms. Jull did not purchase it for herself.
Ms. Coker instead explained that they offer people emergency shelter, sometimes overnight, but that means they offer people a place to sleep. In addition, Ms. Jull spent a good deal of the time in 2012 promoting the Wayfarer Center regionally and even nationally. The result was many business trips with Mr. Gutierrez where they would pay for dinner and host people.
About the travel expenses for her boyfriend, Ms. Coker explained that they had a receipt for that, and Mr. Gutierrez paid for this with his PayPal. Mr. Gutierrez in fact, she said, made the arrangements and Ms. Jull’s boyfriend reimbursed the agency.
She was accused of using the credit to purchase gas for her family and on vacation. In fact, she argued, Ms. Jull would often travel and purchase gas in her own car that she used to go to company functions.
Her father testified that he volunteered his time to drive around town and collect donations. He realized that he could get reimbursed for his gas and mileage and did so. Ms. Coker also explained that there was a company policy for reimbursement.
Ms. Coker would push back against allegations of stealing donations by arguing that there was no evidence presented that donations went anywhere but the Fourth and Hope offices.
Instead of willful stealing, Ms. Coker argued that the work environment was in fact chaotic, that the bookkeepers consistently had to chase down receipts, and that Ms. Jull often used her own vehicle on business runs and simply reimbursed her costs. And she argued that there were problems with the bookkeeper.
The chaise lounge was purchased with the credit card – however, she made a cash reimbursement on it.
Ms. Coker claimed that there was no evidence presented at trial that anything found in Ms. Jull’s home was purchased with the company credit card. No evidence that the tools that she was said to have purchased for personal use were found in the home. She argued that the reason for that is she didn’t take them for personal use.
Deputy DA McHugh had made the point that Ms. Jull’s was the only department over budget in expenses. However, Ms. Coker countered that what the DA didn’t state was that she was also about $500,000 over budget on revenue and the reason that they spent more than was budgeted was because they had far more revenue than what was budgeted.
She noted that there were yearly audits of the finances that found no issues. The board had approved the audit report each year.
Ms. Coker noted that the board president did not even know that Fourth and Hope had several company cars.
In terms of the car repair, Ms. Coker argued that Ms. Jull’s personal vehicle broke down while transporting clients. She had AAA transport the clients back to the office. That is what incurred that fee. They then used a company vehicle, however, in the meantime, since her car broke down while transporting clients on business related expenses, and she had asked permission and received it to use company money to make the repairs.
Ms. Coker argued that there were no trips taken that were not approved by the board in 2012. The reason she took so many is that she was training Chris Gutierrez to be the Assistant Director. They went to many conferences that year trying to build the organization.
Ms. Coker did acknowledge that they were fast and loose, but argued this was no crime and most of these were part of the approved budget.
In her final words, she asked the jury, what was Ms. Jull’s intent? To steal? No, she said, but rather to help build the organization.
In her rebuttal, Ms. McHugh argued that Chris Gutierrez was not on trial and she could not state why he didn’t come to testify. She argued that nothing would have prevented the defense from calling him as a witness.
She argued that the battery in the testimony was not explained, as she argued you do not put a marine battery in a car and Fourth and Hope doesn’t have a boat.
The couch, she argued, was purchased with the company credit card, and even if she returned the money – which, she argued, there was no evidence that she had, it is still theft.
She acknowledged that they did not know much about the audits, but argued that, unless the auditors asked specific questions about each purchase, they may not have looked for specific answers.
Ms. McHugh then argued that, even if the jury accepts every explanation by the defendant at face value, there is no explanation for a number of purchases.
She re-calculated that, excluding all of them, she could still come up with $2000 in items that Ms. Jull had no explanation for and no reason to purchase. Given that this still exceeds the $950 threshold for grand theft, even if the jury believed the explanations on everything, the jury still needed to find Ms. Jull guilty of grand theft.
She closed with, “You decide was this appropriate, was this legal.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting