Ventura County Community Foundation in the Clear, Attorney General Says

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In a five-paragraph letter issued last month, the state Attorney General’s Office said its investigation had closed now that the foundation has made all required corrections.

Based in Camarillo, the foundation invests about $120 million in charitable assets for community causes and awards funding.

CEO Vanessa Bechtel, who says she learned of the discrepancies after taking over in 2015, said the decision means the 31-year-old foundation can continue operating independently.

“There was no other option,” she said. “It had to be resolved.”

The charity was ordered to upgrade training of board members, retain an expert to review and develop policies and start repaying $1.8 million that auditors estimated was lost by leaving funds in low-earning money-market accounts.

No criminal charges were filed, but the state agency reported in February 2017 that the foundation had been “imprudent” in its management of donor assets.

The agency cited the purchase of a headquarters building without sufficient funds to manage the debt, investment of $3.8 million from an endowment established to pay for operations into the building, and the holding of donor funds in money-market accounts for indefinite periods of time.

The attorney general can and does take legal action to restrict operations or dissolve charities, but in this case merely required the corrections to be made. In the closing letter, the agency credited the foundation with voluntarily reporting concerns over investment policies and endowment funds, and fully cooperating with investigators.

Bechtel estimated that the foundation’s board devoted more than 1,000 hours to the effort to correct the issues. Personally, she said, it was an “every waking hour” concern.

About $500,000 was spent for legal and accounting services to identify and correct the issues, she said.

Scott Hansen, interim chairman of the board, said he was pleased by both the decision and its timing. The attorney general’s letter was dated Dec. 6, a couple days after the Thomas Fire started, spawning a major relief effort involving charities around the county.

The foundation has contributed more than $1 million to nonprofit agencies assisting survivors of the fire, Bechtel said. Next up the focus will be on fire-related issues that need to be solved over the medium and long-term, such as housing and environmental concerns, she said.

Hansen said the closing of the probe shows the foundation did the right thing by disclosing the issues to the attorney general two years ago, has fixed the problems and is now poised to be a leader in the nonprofit community.

As long as the investigation was open, it created questions about the foundation’s ability to provide leadership, he said.

“This removes that doubt,” said the Ventura man and banking executive.

The attorney general’s office has tied the problems to decisions made by former CEO Hugh Ralston and the board. Ralston has defended his record and says his recommendations were thoroughly reviewed and approved by the board. He could not be reached for comment for this story.

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