"Green' fundraiser pleads to theft

Published Jun. 29, 2005|Updated Aug. 25, 2005

Two years ago, facing accusations that he had stolen thousands of dollars from charity, former Earth Share of Florida executive director Jack LaBounty called himself the victim of a conspiracy.

In a pair of rambling, defiant interviews with the St. Petersburg Times, LaBounty labeled the accusations "pure, unadulterated fiction" and insisted he had done nothing wrong.

On Tuesday, though, LaBounty pleaded guilty to grand theft and misusing charitable contributions. Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Douglas Baird sentenced him to 10 years of probation and five years in prison, but suspended the prison time pending completion of his probation.

Under a deal negotiated between Assistant State Attorney Shawn Smith and Assistant Public Defender Craig Alldredge, LaBounty agreed to pay more than $82,000 in restitution. If he does not pay at least $700 a month, he may wind up in prison.

LaBounty, who once worked as a television reporter, declined to talk about why he changed his plea, but said he may have trouble coming up with the restitution.

"Mine is not to wonder why, mine is but to do or go back to jail," he quipped after leaving court.

He said he is unemployed. "Who wants to hire a 67-year-old felon?" he asked.

There was a time when the silver-haired LaBounty's moneymaking ability made him seem like a savior for Earth Share, a St. Petersburg charity that collected thousands of dollars from payroll deductions, including from state and federal employees.

Earth Share was supposed to funnel the money to 22 environmental organizations, including the Florida Wildlife Federation, Friends of the Everglades and the Save the Manatee Club. But the charity, formerly the Environmental Fund for Florida, was consistently spending thousands of dollars more than it collected.

LaBounty's predecessor, Melissa Metcalfe, quit after three months when she saw records indicating that all contributions were going to Earth Share operations, which she feared would lead to trouble with the Internal Revenue Service.

"I'm kind of past the age to worry about fashion but I wouldn't look good in handcuffs," testified Metcalfe, who said the charity's board was "extremely slack in its oversight."

LaBounty replaced her in 2000. He had no experience with environmental causes, but his resume listed an extensive background raising money for nonprofit causes such as museums and orchestras.

For Earth Share, he flew around the country, stayed at fine hotels and boasted about how much money he raised. He presented himself as a dashing man-about-town with a wealth of stories and an exotic sports car, a 1981 Lancia Zagato.

But records show that when the Lancia needed parts from Italy, LaBounty charged the Federal Express shipping cost to an Earth Share credit card. Records show he used the same credit card to pay for everything from groceries at Publix to greens fees at the Tournament Players Club in Tampa.

LaBounty's two-year tenure at Earth Share unraveled because of Carrie Walters, whom he hired to help run fundraising campaigns.

LaBounty didn't show up in the office much, she testified in a pretrial deposition. Neither did his live-in girlfriend, Rene Werner, whom LaBounty had put on the payroll without telling the board.

Frequently, Walters testified, when she took paperwork to LaBounty's Treasure Island home during work hours "he would have a beer in his hand . . . He would be in his underwear or his shorts and he would be watching television."

On one trip to his house, Walters said, she saw some papers indicating there was just $20,000 in Earth Share's bank account. Later, though, when she was putting together a PowerPoint presentation for an upcoming board meeting, LaBounty told her to claim they would have $200,000 by fall, she testified.

Walters quit and sent Earth Share board members a six-page memo accusing LaBounty of using the Earth Share credit card to buy computers for his home and hiding the bills from the board.

At first, LaBounty convinced some board members that Walters was the real villain. But when the board hired auditors to pore over his books, he quit and disappeared for several months.

Because of the Times' coverage of the case, the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs launched an investigation that led to LaBounty's arrest in May 2003.

The national Earth Share organization has now forbidden LaBounty's former employer from using that name. Donations no longer pour into the coffers of what is once again known as the Environmental Fund for Florida.

"We have a black eye now because of our perceived mismanagement of money," its current president, Michael Chenowith, testified. In an interview, Chenowith expressed hope that LaBounty's guilty plea will clear the way for reviving the organization.

He promised the board would be "a lot more attentive to what's going on." But he envisions no changes in how it handles its finances.

"I think the organization was pretty well structured before," he said.

"You have to rely on the people you're working with to be reasonably honest."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.