What is the Union County Economic Development Corporation?

About the agency

The Union County Economic Development Corporation is a 501(c)(6) organization that serves member businesses — which pay dues — in Union County with a mission of championing these businesses and promoting economic growth in the county. Since the early 1980s, the agency, which is not part of city, county or state government, has partnered with the county and city, from which it receives more than half its funding.

Who sits on the UCEDC board?

The board has 12 members representing Union County’s economy and communities. Four board members are elected by the UCEDC membership; four are appointed by the Union County Board of Commissioners; and four are appointed by the La Grande City Council.

The terms are staggered to provide for three terms being open each year. The Union County Economic Development Corporation’s board of directors is currently made up of the following individuals from around the county:

President Mark Davidson: Former Union County Commissioner

Vice President Carrie Brogoitti: Center for Human Development

Treasurer Mike Poe: Lewis, Poe, Moeller, Gunderson & Roberts, CPA

Secretary Jeff Crews: Eastern Oregon Net, Inc. (resigned last month)

Past President Tim Seydel: Eastern Oregon University

Bob Kavanaugh: Executive director of the Union County Chamber of Commerce

Seth Hassinger: Hassinger Farms

Mary Ann Miesner: La Grande City Councilor

John Lackey: Source One Consulting, was a city councilor at the time of the investigation

Donna Beverage: Union County Commissioner

Christine Jarski: City of La Grande’s community and economic development director

Andy Perry: Anderson Perry & Associates

Source: UCEDC.org

An employee of the county’s economic development agency embezzled more than $21,000 over a two-year period and the public never knew about it.

But a number of local officials were aware that Amanda Case, then an administrative assistant for the Union County Economic Development Corporation, embezzled $21,590 between November 2014 and November 2016.

According to La Grande Police Chief Brian Harvey, whose department handled the investigation, Case had an agency credit card and made 29 unauthorized purchases during those two years.

Harvey said the investigation of Case’s actions began in the fall of 2016.

“The report came from (UCEDC’s) accounting firm,” Harvey said. “The accounting firm had been talking to Executive Director (Dan Stark), and our

investigators started talking to him.”

A civil compromise

Union County District Attorney Kelsie McDaniel said UCEDC and Case agreed upon a civil compromise, which, McDaniel explained, means the defendant requests a compromise from the victim in lieu of criminal charges being filed. As the victim, the agency decided the terms of the compromise were agreeable.

“The board wanted a speedy recovery of those finances, and (a civil compromise) is the best way to do that,” said McDaniel, adding her office did not become involved in the case until May 2017.

Harvey agrees.

“When you look at all the factors involved in the case, (the civil compromise was) a very good resolution,” he said.

Case’s attorney, Bob Moon of Baker City, did not return a request seeking comment.

Case, who declined to comment for this story, does not have a criminal record, according to both McDaniel and Harvey. Both law enforcement officials said the lack of criminal record was considered when the compromise was pursued.

“She was very cooperative, very remorseful,” McDaniel said, adding Case was fired from the agency in the winter of 2016.

Case was ordered to pay back the money — plus any associated bank fees and attorney fees — in May. McDaniel said Case paid more than $32,000 back to UCEDC the day after she was ordered to do so.

Case was also ordered to complete a moral recognition therapy program, McDaniel said. The program, through Union County Community Corrections, teaches participants to make better choices. Case has been enrolled in the program since May. If Case successfully completes the program, criminal charges will not be filed, the DA said.

Harvey said an embezzler paying back the full amount of money “is almost unheard of in my career.”

Nondisclosure agreement

The embezzlement went on for two years before the organization discovered the money was missing, and then the situation was kept a secret from city officials and the public.

When contacted for this story, some UCEDC board members mentioned a nondisclosure agreement regarding the embezzlement, which had to be signed by all 12 board members — though none would go into detail about when it was signed or why it was needed.

UCEDC President Mark Davidson, who was a county commissioner at the time of the investigation, said he could not comment on any details surrounding the case because of personnel issues.

“Call the UCEDC attorney,” he said.

Wyatt Baum, the agency’s attorney, did not return requests for comment on the case.

Stark also did not return multiple phone calls for comment.

The Observer has submitted a public records request for UCEDC’s meeting minutes in an effort to learn whether the organization intended to make the information public. In an email response, Davidson said the agency will comply with the request.

Public impact

The county economic development agency receives more than 50 percent of its funding from the City of La Grande and Union County. In early 2017, while the agency was quietly working to settle the embezzlement, Stark and Davidson went before both government bodies asking for funding, without publicly telling its partner agencies about the ongoing issue. The La Grande City Council contributed $35,000 to the organization on July 1 per the request the agency made earlier during the budget process.

That’s something that doesn’t sit well with La Grande Mayor Steve Clements.

“I did not know about it,” Clements said after being told about the embezzlement for the first time. “Given the relationship as funding and as action partners — and emphasis on partners — I think the city should’ve been notified.”

Upon learning more about the investigation, Clements said although it’s a complicated situation, he still believes the city should have been told.

“They’re free to keep this information to themselves, but if it went to their board for conversation, then I think their partners should’ve been notified,” he said.

Councilor Gary Lillard also said he didn’t know about the investigation.

“I certainly would have liked to have known,” he said. “Seems like pretty important information, and I certainly would like to know more about this.”

Councilor Justin Rock was more ambivalent.

“I have not heard anything about that, but it’s a touchy subject,” he said. “I can understand, being an employer. It’s a sensitive matter, and I’m sure they’ll make it right and explain it and figure out a way to fix it so it doesn’t happen in the future.”

Mary Ann Miesner, who currently sits on the UCEDC board as a representative of the La Grande City Council, said she could not comment on the case. Board member John Lackey, who was a city councilor at the time of the investigation, said he was “absolutely not willing to comment. At this point, it’s in the hands of the attorney.”

City Councilors Troy Pointer, Corrine Dutto and Nicole Howard did not return requests for comment.

When asked about the situation, City Manager Robert Strope would only say that “UCEDC has not brought anything to the city about that.”

The Union County Commissioners have not yet made a decision on whether to grant the funds the agency requested in April. The county was scheduled to make a decision during its budgeting process in June, but the commissioners declined at that point because of concerns raised by Commissioner Donna Beverage, who is also on the UCEDC board, about a lack of transparency regarding the agency’s financial records.

Commissioner Jack Howard did not return calls seeking comment.

Not everyone was in the dark about the embezzlement, however. The only public official outside of UCEDC board members who confirmed he was privy to the information was Commissioner Steve McClure, who said Stark had told him “ages ago” about the issue.

“UCEDC is a separate organization. They have board members, and I assumed they knew,” McClure said. “I don’t assume the councilors and commissioners were told. It was a personnel issue.”

McClure said it was his understanding that the economic development group’s board was made aware of the embezzlement case and was rectifying the matter.

“I don’t know what I would’ve done different,” McClure said. “Mark (Davidson) was involved, (so the county) had a presence there. I’m not going to comment on the outcome.”