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California and the West

Turmoil Rocks Guide-Dog School

Probe: State investigates alleged mismanagement, but some attribute the charity's problems to petty rivalries. The program specializes in one-on-one training.

October 18, 2000|DIANA MARCUM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

DESERT HOT SPRINGS — A charity that has long depended on Palm Springs wealth is in turmoil, with donors withholding money as a state investigator probes allegations of mismanagement.

Some blame petty rivalries in the local charity scene for the upheaval at Guide Dogs of the Desert, a school that trains guide dogs and their owners to work together. But if the school falters, victims could be blind people such as Cookie Ivester, who describes her 6-year-old golden retriever, Otis, as an extension of herself.

"What goes on in the boardroom doesn't concern me as much as the work they do every day: raising puppies, training dogs and giving people like me independence," said Ivester, 58, who lives outside San Diego. "How could squabbles endanger that?"

The smallest of California's three accredited guide-dog schools, the facility perched on a hill north of Palm Springs caters to people who need more one-on-one time with trainers because of additional disabilities and those who simply crave the intimacy of small classes.

"We're like a family," said Ivester. "Everyone who's been through the school goes back for graduations and fund-raisers. It's like going home."

But the school is threatened by a showdown between its executive director and some on its board of directors over allegations of mismanagement. A state official investigating the school says the controversy may cost the facility as much as $400,000 a year in lost donations out of its $1-million annual budget.

Founded in 1972, the school has never been in the same league as the glitzier Palm Springs charities. Though it has grown steadily and attracted a committed band of volunteers, the facility has always led a hand-to-mouth existence, school officials and others say.

Its recent troubles began this summer when board members, acting on a tip provided in early summer by a former employee, accused Executive Director Don Robinson of financial improprieties such as asking the treasurer to sign blank checks and to keep endowments off the books to encourage donations.

After a board majority in June expressed support for Robinson and declared his infractions minor, several directors resigned in protest. Some also said they left out of concern that they could be held liable for any financial misdeeds.

Now Canyon Country Charities--a nonprofit organization run by residents of the Canyon Country Club of Palm Springs, many of whom are wealthy retirees from the Midwest--is withholding $120,000 remaining from $300,000 it raised for the school in a 1998 golf tournament.

And donors such as Myron Chavin, a Canyon Country Club resident who supported the school but was not on its board, are swearing to never write another check.

Over the years, "I gave them a half-million dollars, and I'll never give them another dime," said the 70-year-old Chavin.

Robinson said the fund-raising group does not have the right to withhold money it raised in the school's name.

He attributes the problem to rivalries between two charity groups represented on the board: Canyon Country Club members and the local Lions Club, whose members include Coachella Valley business owners, retirees and professionals.

Though coming from differing backgrounds, the two groups for years worked together to build the school, former board members say.

But according to Robinson, who belongs to the Lions, the two groups clashed after he was appointed in March 1999. The board named him to the job on a split vote, with Canyon Country members favoring another candidate.

"They didn't like me from the beginning because I was brought in by the Lions," Robinson said. "They haven't been kind. But I'm not quitting."

David Simon, a board member who resigned over the allegations against Robinson but does not belong to either group, disagreed that Canyon Country Club members were motivated by rivalry. But he does wonder if group allegiances played a role in the outcome.

"When the board [decided] to support him, I sat there with my mouth open," he said. Simon noted that Robinson was wearing a Lions baseball cap at the Lions-dominated board meeting.

After hearing from board members and employees about the allegations, the State Board of the Guide Dogs for the Blind, which oversees such schools, asked its executive officer, Pat Urena, to investigate in September.

Urena said that there is no evidence that money has been stolen, but that she believes sloppy management, compounded by infighting, has put the school in peril.

"I haven't determined if anyone walked out with the piggy bank. If they did, I'll turn the case over to the Department of Justice," she said. "But unwise decisions were made. Here's a charity that's alienated its chief group of donors."

Charity work--and the rivalries that go with it--is a fact of desert social life. A common joke in this area of affluent retirees is that if there were no charity events, neighbors and friends would never see each other.

Renata Rafferty, a Coachella Valley resident and author of a book about effective charitable giving, said the controversy at Guide Dogs of the Desert reflects problems suffered by many nonprofit organizations.

"A charity starts out because a group of people are dedicated to a cause, but as they grow and as more money comes in, there's a lot of infighting, egos and other junk," she said. "At that point, the charity either grows up or it goes down."

State investigator Urena said she is determined to help the school survive.

"This school is very important to people in the southern part of the state," she said.

"If I find no evidence of embezzlement or theft, then . . . we'll go in and help this board make policy in a thoughtful, organized way. We're dedicated to assuring the school's future is safe."

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