A request for a donation submitted to the city council last year on behalf of the Nogales Elks Lodge was fraudulent, the Arizona Department of Public Safety has determined.
Its author, however, has gotten off scot-free thanks to unclear policy and memory lapses by those in charge of receiving and processing requests for donations, according to a DPS report obtained from Santa Cruz County Attorney George Silva.
Silva requested the state inquiry after he was asked by City Councilwoman Esther Melendez-Lopez to investigate some of the more than $90,000 in donations made by the council in June 2009.
Among the donations was a $1,800 check issued in response to the fraudulent written request from the Elks Club.
And while the author of the phony letter may never be known, what is certain is that Councilman Ramon Felix took possession of the original donation check for $1,800 and delivered it not to the Elks Lodge, but to the coach of the University of Arizona Color Guard.
Felix’s daughter was a member of the color guard at the time.
The color guard coach, however, refused the check when she noticed it was made out in her name. A stop payment voided that check and a second one was issued under the authority of former City Manager Jaime Fontes.
By this time, suspicions were raised. And when Melendez-Lopez requested an investigation, City Attorney Jose Luis Machado demanded a stop payment on the second check, saying that Fontes did not have the right to change the payee without council approval.
At this point, Elks Exalted Ruler Denny Scanlan told Machado his organization never requested the funds. He said the letter was a fake.
The impetus for the color guard donation is described in the DPS report.
“In April or May of 2009, Carissa Felix, daughter of … Councilman Ramon Felix, was attending a charitable golf tournament in Nogales,” the report states. “While speaking with her father and Nogales City Manager Jaime Fontes, Ms. Felix was asked if the U of A Color Guard needed any funding. Ms Felix did not recall (under questioning by the DPS detective) who had asked the question. Ms. Felix replied the Color Guard needed money for new uniforms.”
Felix told investigators he requested the $1,800 for the Color Guard. But he said that until Machado began his internal investigation, he knew nothing of the fraudulent letter purportedly written by the Elks Lodge secretary treasurer.
DPS investigators were unable to find a copy of Felix’s request for the money.
City Clerk Leticia Robinson and Assistant City Clerk Omar Sanchez told investigators they received many donation requests and did not specifically recall receiving the fraudulent letter.
Several attempts during the county’s initial investigation to gain documentation and information from Fontes, who now lives in Santa Paula, Calif., were unsuccessful.
There were several other questionable transactions involving the donations. But County Attorney Silva said those could be traced to nebulous policies and procedures for city donations that seemed to shift from year to year.
After requesting help from DPS, Silva said the one offense that could result in criminal liability was the fraudulent letter. Now, in light of the results of the investigation, he said his office cannot prosecute.
“The key is we have not identified a suspect,” he said. “We cannot prosecute the case without a target.”
The original allegations also made reference to another check for $300 made out to the Nogales Elks Lodge from a $35,000 discretionary “Community Outreach” fund. The check never made it into the organization’s coffers.
Felix requested the check for a golf tournament held for the UA Color Guard. He admitted during an August 2009 council meeting that he gave the check to the Medicis (the managers of the Palo Duro Creek Golf Course), which then deposited the funds without an endorsement on the check.
Felix, who was appointed to the council in April 2008, is seeking re-election.
These were just two occasions in which Felix used his position to propose donations for the UA Color Guard. He also made a request directly for his daughter.
In March 2009, he specifically asked for $500 for Carissa, who needed “to pay membership dues for the UA marching band,” according to city documents.
In an April request, he asked for $750 for the UA Color Guard. These were never approved.
Felix was also accused of requesting a kickback from a local seniors’ baseball league. Among the checks being questioned was one for the Liga Municipal de Beisbol.
In August, Francisco Grijalva, president of the Liga Municipal de Beisbol, stood before the council and said that the league received an unsolicited donation of $2,500. During the meeting, Councilwoman Melendez Lopez asked, “Who authorized – who requested the money?”
There was no reply to her question either from Felix or Fontes, who as city manager approved all checks.
In an interview, Grijalva said that Felix hand-delivered the check to him. Grijalva contends that Felix asked him to donate about $300 to the “flags” from the $2,500 donation.
Grijalva said he never returned any money to Felix.