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Parent group stung by alleged embezzlement

Woman accused of taking thousands from group's school fund

A Gresham woman is accused of stealing more than $11,000 from the parent-teacher club for which she served as treasurer.

Jenifer Lynn Sayles, 34, of Gresham has not been arrested or indicted. But a 250-page police report has been forwarded to the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office for review. Deputy District Attorney Dennis Shen said the case is under investigation.

Sayles declined to comment at this time. However, her attorney James O'Rourk says he hopes to tell her story after the investigation is complete.

Meanwhile, parents whose children attend East Orient Grade School and West Gresham Middle School - both of which benefit from the Orient Parent Teacher Club's fundraising efforts - are struggling to understand how someone could allegedly embezzle thousands of dollars earmarked for children and teachers.

The club is independent of the Gresham-Barlow School District. Its major fundraiser, a fall jog-a-thon, raises more than $20,000 for specific purchases, said Julie Ramseth, club co-president.

Luckily, the alleged embezzlement was discovered and the club's accounts closed before checks for this year's jog-a-thon were collected, Ramseth said.

That's good news for students, who raised money to buy iPads for the elementary school classrooms and library books for the middle school.

Also, proceeds from last year's jog-a-thon remained untouched. 'There was nothing skimmed off of that,' Ramseth said, adding that Sayles began volunteering as the club's treasurer in September 2010, right before last year's jog-a-thon was held.

The bad news is that proceeds from the club's other fundraisers - including a sock hop, golf-a-thon, auction, movie ticket sales and Scrip program - are gone. That means the club can't fund grants for teachers who most recently have been awarded money for field trips, spellcheckers, a camera and microscope for science lessons, and special books for students struggling to read.

Red flags

Looking back, Ramseth sees the red flags. She even noticed some within months after Sayles began volunteering as treasurer. Like when instead of turning in a simple Quicken printout for the treasurer's report, Sayles cut and pasted from multiple documents to create the report.

Club board members thought it odd, along with Sayles' explanation: She was trying to save paper.

'She'd always have an excuse,' Ramseth said.

For Ramseth, the first red flag appeared in February 2011, about six months after Sayles started. A check to the state for the club's yearly filing fee bounced. When asked about it, Sayles told Ramseth and other board members that her purse had been stolen at Fred Meyer, implying that the thief must have written checks, causing club checks to bounce.

A few months later, Sayles used the theft as an excuse to change banks. Because the club had to close its account at Wells Fargo Bank anyway, Sayles suggested opening a new club account where her personal account is at West Coast Bank.

Seeing no reason to say no, the board agreed in April to switch banks, with Sayles and the club president being the authorized signers on the club account.

But in October, Ramseth received a bank statement from Wells Fargo.

'I thought that was strange because we'd closed that account months ago,' she said.

Not only had Sayles not closed the account, but it was overdrawn by about $500. Because of the 'ongoing negative balance,' Wells Fargo was notifying Ramseth that the bank was closing the account and sending it to collections.

Ramseth called Jerry Jones, chief financial officer and assistant superintendent for the Gresham-Barlow School District. Although the club is completely separate from the district, Ramseth knew the board needed help unraveling this.

Together they closed both accounts and Jones reviewed the club's bank statements, including all checks written on the club's account and other financial documents.

His conclusion: Sayles used $11,381.45 in club funds for her own personal use - for everything from gas, to dinners to a $2,200 bouncy house. The total only includes automatic teller transactions and checks. There was no paper trail for cash deposits that Sayles was responsible for making.

More discoveries

The club also made another startling discovery - Sayles was the only authorized signer for both bank accounts, including the West Coast Bank, which had required two signers.

Sayles had provided West Coast Bank with a letter on club letterhead, signed by the club secretary, authorizing her as the only signer on the club's bank account.

But the letter, Ramseth said, was a fake, the secretary's signature had been cut and pasted onto the letter.

Oh, and the stolen purse at Fred Meyer never happened. It was just a story to cover up the bouncing checks, Ramseth said.

Almost immediately after closing the bank accounts and cutting off Sayles' access to them, Jones got a call from West Coast Bank. Sayles had just called to ask why her debit card for the account no longer worked.

Jones called Sayles, explained he was conducting an audit on the club's financing, and asked her to come in to talk to him about account activity.

During that meeting, Sayles reportedly admitted to taking money for personal use, saying she always intended to pay it all back with her tax return and a loan from her retirement account.

Salyes also said she'd already paid back some of the money.

Pointing out charges at a casino, Jones asked Sayles if she had a gambling problem.

'I was wrong, I was wrong, I shouldn't have done this,' Sayles reportedly said, quietly and repeatedly.

She then admitted to having a problem with playing video poker.

Sayles offered to pay restitution and agreed to resign as treasurer.

She just had one question: Could she still volunteer at her daughter's school?

Resignation

That afternoon, she emailed her letter of resignation.

'Words can't express my deepest regrets and shame at this time,' she began. 'I have managed to destroy friendships, my reputation as well as hurt what we all hold dear the most our children.'

She goes on to ask that the matter be handled with 'the utmost discretion, not for me but for my kids … We all know many of the same people, our kids play together the Secretary even goes to my church.'

Sayles asked that the board echo what she planned to tell people - that she resigned because she had too much on her plate.

Nine days later, after hearing that the club intended to press charges, she sent another email asking them to reconsider.

'I beg you as mothers to spare my family,' she wrote. 'I will and do plan, as I did from my first mistake, to make financial restitution in a timely manner.' She also added that she is in a recovery program and in therapy for a gambling addiction. 'I sit here raw and naked with emotion apologizing as much as I possibly can begging you to allow the doors of communications between all of us to open so that I may attempt to make amends and restitution for my choices that have hurt so many, including you. I ask that you please reflect on what your needs for absolution are. If they are for the PTC to have the funds restored consider it done. If absolution includes my personal humiliation, regret and unexplainable remorse please know that too is.'

Detectives dig in

After gathering emails and bank documents, Ramseth on Nov. 9 reported the case to Gresham police. Detectives ran Sayles' criminal history and discovered a 2004 arrest in Troutdale on 12 counts of forgery, identity theft, criminal possession of a forged document, theft and falsifying business records.

While working as a property manager for an apartment complex, Sayles was fired for reportedly forging tenant signatures onto lease agreements and pocketing the free month of rent that new tenants receive upon moving in.

Sayles denied wrongdoing, blaming poor bookkeeping on the part of her employer Interwest Properties. And although she was arrested, the case never went to trial.

In 2005, Sayles was named as a suspect in a Gresham theft case reported by the Portland Habilitation Center. Sayles, who used to work for the company as a property manager, was fired in 2004. But in May 2005, somebody ordered a computer under another employee's name - an employee who knew nothing about the computer being ordered - and had it shipped to Sayles' home address.

A company official told detectives it was the second time Sayles bought a computer and charged it to the company using another employee's name and shipping it to her home. The first time, Sayles paid off the order herself. The second time, the company was able to stop shipment before it was sent to Sayles, but the company filed a police report nevertheless.

Two months later, the state revoked her property manager's license.

Now, as the investigation continues, Ramseth is dazed and, quite frankly, angry. Sayles was a respected and trusted friend. How dare she use that to her financial gain - and at the expense of local school children, including her own daughter who attends East Orient Grade School?

'We were a targeted victim for her,' Ramseth said. 'She started it pretty much right away.'

As for Sayles saying she's already paid some of the money back, Ramseth said all she did was make deposits to try to cover her tracks. The money in no way replaced what was stolen, Ramseth said.

Now that word of the case is getting out, parents in the tight-knit Orient community are feeling stung.

'Everybody knows how hard everybody works to pull these events off and how generous the community is,' Ramseth said. That's why the club officers decided to press charges. 'Our community that we represent would expect nothing less from us. We need to make sure this doesn't happen again.'