By Kevan Moore
Bremerton’s American Legion Post 68 didn’t just go bankrupt and lose its charter all by itself. Quite simply, more gambling money went out the back door than came in the front.
The post was known for years as a big earner in the gaming business of pull tabs and bingo. For many years Post 68 made the state’s top 20 list of non profit license holders. Their last year, before the stealing started, Post 68 reported $1.7 million in bingo and pull tab sales.
A Bremerton Police Department investigation into the apparent embezzlement that financially broke Post 68 was lackluster and limited. However, it raised serious questions about the family who had across-the-board financial control of Post 68 during its downfall: Post Commander and financial manager Peter Almond; his wife, Betty, she ran the bar; and their daughter, Andrea Coleman, she ran the gambling operations.
Things were running pretty smoothly at Post 68 in 2007 and many years before; including previous years in which Almond led the lucrative post. According to available tax records for 2007, the mortgage debt on the building had gone down from $280,238 to $252,642. It’s also true that cash reserves dipped slightly that year, from $51,407 to $44,147, but there was no real cause for alarm.
That year, bingo and pull tabs brought in more than $1.5 million.
By 2010, Pete Almond had returned to Post Commander, with his family installed in key positions and then expenses exceeded revenue at Post 68 by $62,595. The post was $50,000 behind on mortgage payments and $17,000 in arrears with the Department of Revenue for business and occupation taxes. Other debts were also piled high atop a heap of financial records that were a shambles.
None of it happened in a vacuum; the money, instead, ended up in somebody’s back pocket.
FURY OF THE NILE
On November 2, 2009, after a routine pull tab compliance inspection turned up significant shortages in about 20 games at Post 68, Washington State Gambling Commission Agent Keith Wittmers and his supervisor, Agent Sonja Dolson, visited Post 68. The investigators met with Peter and Betty Almond and collected pull tab purchase logs, income summaries from the point-of-sale system, check registers, bank statements, deposit slips, daily records and “game tracker” reports.
The investigators determined that one game, in particular, and one employee, in particular, accounted for a significant shortage. The game was “Fury of the Nile” and the employee was Andrea Coleman.
Wittmers and Dolson eventually met with Betty Almond, who told them that she knew there were problems with the pull tabs. The agents also informed Mrs. Almond that her daughter, Coleman, was the only one responsible for the games at the time of the thefts.
“Betty Almond became visibly upset, started crying and stated she believed she was going to get sick,” the investigators wrote.
Peter Almond told the investigators that his wife was out of town at the time of the thefts and that he was supervising Coleman when prize payouts exceeded gross receipts. Almond said when he confronted his daughter, she told him that regular players were constantly winning. Almond told the investigators that he took money from other post accounts and his own personal account to cover required deposits.
Attempts to locate the Almond family for comment on this story failed.
The investigators ultimately determined that Coleman took at least $5,000 in cash from Post 68 pull tab sales before moving to Oklahoma.
In the final paragraph of his six-page report, Agent Wittmers noted that he contacted Justin Zaug at the Kitsap County Prosecutor’s Office to discuss the case.
“Based on the information, Zaug stated (prosecutors) would not be willing to charge Coleman,” Whittmers wrote. “The cost of the prosecution, including extradition, would far exceed the missing $5,000. This case is considered closed at this time.”
When contacted for this story, Kitsap County Prosecutor Russ Hauge said he spoke with Zaug, who remembers having a conversation with Agent Whittmers.
“It would be logical for investigators to think that we might not file the charge, but we would not make that decision until we saw some reports, from the Bremerton Police Department, Gambling Commission or any other agency,” Hauge said. “I’m very confident that if a report actually had come in, it would have been logged in, referred to proper channels and received a formal review. This case never did. We didn’t decline to file because we never got the case to review. There was an informal opinion of a deputy prosecutor and apparently this investigator got the impression it wasn’t worth his time to forward a file on to us for formal review.”
Hauge also noted that extradition costs would not have played a role in a charging decision and that, “5,000 is not an insignificant amount of money” in a theft case.
That $5,000 is, indeed, a lot of money, but it’s not enough to have bankrupted Post 68. Any cash business is likely to attract sticky fingers, but Coleman’s theft didn’t sink the ship.
The Bremerton Police Department opened an embezzlement investigation at Post 68 on May 3, 2010, when members of the club reported that some $500,000 to $1 million was unaccounted for shortly after Peter Almond was replaced as commander.
By the end of that month, the chairman of the American Legion Department of Washington, Dale J. Movius, and auditor William B. Powell, completed a partial audit of Post 68.
Movius and Powell focused on January 2009 to April 2010 because financial information for 2008 and earlier was “a hodgepodge of information not complete or in any sort of order.” During the course of their investigation, they found more than ten different savings and checking accounts, but couldn’t even determine which were still open or had been closed.
Nonetheless, Movius and Powell determined that Mr. and Mrs. Almond at times pilfered $5,000 or more a week in 2009. Their report says that it’s possible that more than $180,000 was stolen. Bremerton police, though, noted on multiple occasions that a complete audit was necessary to prove any allegations.
But, even so, police never interviewed the Almonds directly, or called the accountant who held many of the sought after documents. That’s despite the fact, for example, that on Sept. 24, 2009, Elizabeth Almond wrote a check to cash for $5,000 and that on Oct. 8, 2009, Peter almond wrote a check to cash for $7,021.14. Both checks, which joined many other’s written in the same way, were covered by the club’s gambling account.
A large part of Movius and Powell’s partial audit revolves around voided payroll checks. Bill McCoy, whose company W.G. McCoy handled monthly financial statements, bi-weekly payroll and tax preparation for Post 68, says that he instructed his employees to void the checks because Mr. Almond’s checks to him to put into a trust account were consistently bouncing. McCoy, whose other company, Gametech, handled auditing for the gambling operations, said that his driver delivered paychecks to Post 68 when Pete Almond told him that he couldn’t write a check to pay into the trust account. At that point, McCoy says the post was already about $20,000 short for the trust account because of bounced checks with Almond’s signature.
Rather than dealing with another bounced check, McCoy instructed his driver to void the checks and told Almond to pay Post 68 employees directly.
McCoy still works with American Legion Post 149 and local Veterans of Foreign Wars and Fleet Reserve organizations, all located in Bremerton, along with dozens of other businesses and nonprofits throughout Western Washington. In the end, he says that he lost about $45,000 doing business with Post 68 through a combination of bounced checks with Almond’s signature on them and other delinquent bills.
At one point, McCoy says that Almond tried to write him a personal check to cover a bad check written to cover payroll.
“When somebody tries to write me a personal check, I know they’re trying to hide something,” McCoy said. “Why would you be doing that, why wouldn’t you be calling an emergency meeting of the board?”
McCoy said that any checks coming out of the post’s gambling account should have had two signatures and that he urged other safeguards that were routinely ignored.
“(Mrs. Almond) shouldn’t have been on gambling accounts because she was the bar manager, but that got thrown by the wayside, too,” McCoy said. “I can’t control what the board allows for signatures on accounts … (Pete’s) there, another family member is the bar manager and another family member is controlling the bingo side, so you could do basically whatever you wanted.”
McCoy said that under Almond’s leadership, the budget for the club’s service fund used for helping struggling veterans buy food or pay bills skyrocketed from about $20,000 to $30,000 a year to $70,000 per year. Almond had access to the money as cash.
In addition, McCoy says Almond couldn’t account for $20,000 that supposedly went to a non-profit he started that later went belly-up.
‘A BIG DEAL’
Kitsap County Prosecutor Russ Hauge recently looked at Bremerton Police Department’s investigative case file on Post 68, which he hadn’t seen before. When asked if it whetted his prosecutorial appetite he answered in a clear affirmative.
“This is a big deal,” Hauge said. “We’re talking about a lot of money and we’re talking about a relatively small set of people who had access to that money.”
Hauge said a prosecutor would be very interested to see what those with access had to say in an official statement taken in an “investigative setting.” However, none were interviewed by police.
More than a year ago, Bremerton Police place the pages they collected from others into a cold case file. At the time, the detective on the case said the city did not have expertise to conduct a thorough forensic accounting and prove an embezzlement case beyond a reasonable doubt. Again and again, in police reports from the case, the need for a full audit is repeatedly mentioned by officers. That audit, of course, has not happened.
“Unfortunately, that’s the way the system works,” Hauge said. “There isn’t a police agency, other than the FBI, that has forensic accounting services readily available. The Bremerton Police Department, the sheriff’s office, they just don’t have the resources to do the kind of financial digging that’s required to build this kind of case.”
It may be true that area police agencies don’t have forensic accountants on their payrolls, but it is certainly not true that no one has ever been convicted of theft in Kitsap County.
Post 68, sitting empty at the corner of Sheraton and Spruce, is more than a graffiti-covered eyesore today. Bremerton has plenty of similar buildings. What makes it an especially egregious sight is not enough people thought one of the original Legion Post’s economic collapse was “a big deal” in a town full of veterans.