Bounced checks. Unpaid bills. Missing funds for future repairs.
Across Pinellas County, about 20 condo and homeowners associations are reeling from the news that the woman in charge of the finances for Buxton Properties, the company that managed their associations, has been accused of stealing about $1 million from their bank accounts.
Individual associations are out thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"It's just a sad state of affairs," said Michael Troutner, 62, president of the Sea Island North Condominium Association in Clearwater Beach, who estimated that his association was out $36,000.
Now, owners of the 15 units, many of them older, have been asked to pay a $400 assessment to cover daily bills after checks bounced and an elevator maintenance contract went unpaid, Troutner said.
Despite major losses to the associations, Brian Buxton, owner of Largo-based Buxton Properties, says he's one of his former finance director's biggest victims. "I'm more of a victim than much of the associations," said Buxton, 64. "It's devastated me, what she has done."
That comment doesn't sit well with Carl Boake, president of the Pasadena Point Estates Homeowners Association in Gulfport.
Catherine McMullen had the authority to write checks, balance books and make deposits without oversight, Boake said. "I don't think he took the proper steps to ensure the safety of his clients. And now he says he's a victim," Boake said.
Others blame Buxton, too.
"You can't just say that's the employee's fault," said John Streeter, a resident and former board member of the Arbor Heights Condominium Association in St. Petersburg. "There has to be some shared blame."
But some, like Cheryl Wonderly, president of the El de Oro Homeowners Association, sympathize with Buxton. "He's a wonderful, honest man who trusted the wrong person," Wonderly, 58, said.
McMullen, 47, Buxton Properties' controller, was arrested in March. The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office charged her with grand theft in April in connection with thefts that allegedly took place from 2006 to 2009.
McMullen, who had worked for Buxton for about seven or eight years, told Largo police that she shifted about $600,000 from various accounts to cover about $300,000 she had taken from Buxton for such things as a Dodge Charger for her son, dinners out, spa trips, and cell phone and credit card bills, according to Largo police Detective Lara Young.
McMullen appeared to be telling the truth about nearly everything but the amount she took, Young said.
"Our best estimate at this point is approximately $1 million in losses to the association accounts as a direct result of Mrs. McMullen's actions," said Buxton's lawyer, Sean McQuaid, of Battaglia, Ross, Dicus & Wein in St. Petersburg.
McMullen was released on $30,000 bail. Her pretrial hearing is set for Aug. 5. Calls to her public defender and McMullen were not returned.
No one noticed
Until McMullen's arrest, none of the associations reportedly noticed anything amiss. Neither did Buxton, he said.
McMullen provided Buxton and the associations with false bank statements that listed balances that were much higher than the amounts actually in the accounts, police records showed.
Buxton said he had trusted McMullen because of her positive work history as well as the background of her husband, Malcolm "Mac" McMullen.
An officer in the Army Reserve, Malcolm McMullen, who is on military leave, works as an accreditation specialist for the Largo Police Department. He is also a former spokesman for the Largo Police Department and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
Buxton says his reputation, professional relationships and his business have been severely damaged by Catherine McMullen's actions.
"I couldn't feel worse about what she's done," he said. "I've built up relationships with all of these associations over the years."
And he still doesn't know the full extent of the damage to his business, he said.
Trying to recoup
Buxton said his company filed an insurance claim to recoup the losses, but it was denied.
"We're going to be fighting the denial," he said.
But rather than make the associations suffer in the meantime, Buxton suggested they file through their own policies, which protect against theft.
Such policies are required by state statute for condo associations, but not for homeowners associations.
"All the associations should be made whole," Buxton said.
But a couple of association leaders said they've had a hard time filing claims, either because of red tape or because it took awhile for them to be named as victims in the criminal case.
Others say it's clearly Buxton's responsibility to make things right.
Since late May, two associations, Pasadena Point Estates and Breezeway Villas in Pinellas Park, have filed suits against Buxton Properties and McMullen to recover stolen money. Pasadena Point Estates estimates losses at more than $100,000. Breezeway Villas says it's out more than $50,000.
Boake of Pasadena Point Estates said owners, who pay about $600 in dues each year, have been assessed an additional $500 to cover day-to-day bills.
"In these tough times, it's had an economic impact on each homeowner," Boake said.
A resident of the Sunfish Bay Condominium Association in Clearwater and Streeter of Arbor Heights have each filed complaints against Buxton as a licensed community association manager with the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation. The Sunfish Bay resident specifically mentioned the criminal charge against McMullen. Sunfish Bay estimated its loss at $300,000, a police report said.
Community association managers can be held responsible for actions of someone they employ, said Alexis Antonacci Lambert, press secretary for the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
"We would look at that on a case-by-case basis," she said.
Discipline ranges from fines or additional education requirements to probation, suspension or revocation of a license, she said.
Streeter, who made his complaint before McMullen's arrest, said he was denied access to association financial records.
Buxton disputed Streeter's allegations, state records show.
The president of the Arbor Heights Condominium Association, John Winzenried, also discounted them.
Buxton said he has tried to keep everyone in the loop. His lawyer urged associations to be patient. Buxton has hired a forensic auditor, who is going through tens of thousands of transactions, and the process is laborious, McQuaid said.
Winzenried, who estimated his association was out $55,000, said the association has been working with Buxton but that he needs Buxton to be more communicative and to provide a full accounting soon so the association can file an insurance claim.
Things are tough, he said. Half of the owners of the nearly 180 units aren't paying their fees, and about a third of the units are in foreclosure or preforeclosure, he said.
"We were struggling before," Winzenfried said. "We're even struggling more now."
Lorri Helfand can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155.