Friday, August 22, 2014 • 06:54

Letter to the Editor

Other side must be told in rodeo story

May 21, 2014
I have lived my life by the creed that "if you have nothing nice to say, do not say anything at all." Those words have served me well and are the very reason I declined to respond to David Ross's editorial last September accusing the Valley Center Stampede Rodeo Committee of fraudulent activities. I am only now responding as a result of the resurfacing of said editorial in an effort to impede the success of this year's rodeo.

On April 28, 2014 I received an email from Gary Arant with the Valley Center Water District stating that permission to use the Water District's property for rodeo parking, granted last August, would be revoked (based on the editorial written by Mr. Ross which had again resurfaced) unless I could provide proof of our 501(c)(3) status. The Valley Center Optimists, our nonprofit sponsor for the 2014 Stampede Rodeo, immediately sent over their tax determination letter to clear the dispute. However, a pattern has formed in which Ross's editorials have strategically surfaced to undermine the success of this year's rodeo, which will be discussed in more detail later. As such, I realized I needed to break my well-intended silence and address the accusation presented against me to protect the reputation of the Stampede Rodeo, so here goes...

When Mr. Ross left the Valley Roadrunner to work for Dana Chisholm's startup newspaper, the Valley Center Press, he brought with him a taped interview with disgruntled former Rodeo Committee members, Bob Bishop and Therese Thomas, in which they accused me of improperly handling funds, as well as not properly completing the 501(c)(3) application.

Ross would ultimately publish a four-part series for Ms. Chisholm's paper attacking my character, based solely on the information provided by Bishop and Thomas. While I did in fact decline Ross's invitation for an interview, citing the creed stated above, I was in disbelief that Ross did not do his own investigative reporting on IRS guidelines or the ulterior motives of Bishop and Thomas. Instead, he published clearly refutable inaccuracies based solely on these two disgruntled individuals.

As the total four-part series was over 8,000 words in length, I will not attempt to address every inconsistency and inaccuracy; however, I will address the main points to clear my name as well as that of my fellow committee members.

Let me start with what Ross reported accurately. The VC Stampede Rodeo has in fact been under the non-profit umbrella of both VC Chamber of Commerce and VC Optimists over the last 12 years. Many factors have been involved in the back-and-forth partnerships. After serving on the Rodeo Committee for several years, Bishop began pushing the committee to apply for 501(c)(3) status. Bishop did not like that the rodeo proceeds went to benefit the Optimists and the Chamber; instead, he wanted to retain the profits for sole use by the Rodeo Committee.

It is true that I was resistant to Bishop's desire to form a 501(c)(3) as I have no background in running a nonprofit corporation and simply wanted to put on a rodeo for our community. I personally felt our partnership with the Optimists for the 2012 Stampede Rodeo was the perfect partnership. The Optimists handled the corporate oversight and the Rodeo Committee was able to do what they do best, put on a successful rodeo.

In 2013, Bishop finally convinced the Rodeo Committee to form a 501(c)(3) and successfully argued that Thomas, his bookkeeper and whom he had previously nominated as the committee treasurer, was fully capable of processing the necessary documentation and fees. He cited Thomas's 20-year career as a bookkeeper and former Food and Drug Investigator for the state of California as her qualifying credentials. We trusted his judgment and voted to allow Thomas to move forward with the formation of a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation. As such, Thomas was given full access to the accounts through completion of the 2013 rodeo. Had any financial inconsistencies arisen, it was her responsibility to bring them to the attention of the Rodeo Committee immediately.

Another fact stated in the editorial that is not disputed is that Bishop did in fact write the Corporate Bylaws. Upon review of Bishop's Bylaws by an outside expert, the Bylaws were described as "inadequate, incomplete, flawed and grossly self-serving." They were certainly not the "parliamentarian rules" Bishop applauds himself for in Ross's editorials. One of the only defined rules presented in said Bylaws was the rule that Board Members served "indefinitely" with no noted conditions for voting in new board members or removing sitting board members.

As a result of Bishop's push for a 501(c)(3), the 2013 Stampede Rodeo did not have a fiscal sponsor providing nonprofit status. As such, a bank account was established with access given to Thomas and myself. Thomas stated that donations to the rodeo were tax deductible while our nonprofit status was pending. Bishop and Thomas would have the public believe I improperly handled rodeo funds; yet by their own admission, they had full oversight over these corporate functions through completion of the 2013 rodeo. They use "attendance guesstimates" to lodge complaints of specific amounts of missing money. This is nonsense. With a 20-year bookkeeping veteran as our board treasurer, I rightfully believed we had a professional at the helm. I have conferred with other local nonprofit members and they have assured me that it is standard policy to rely on the board treasurer to have processes in place to account for all monies collected, deposited, and outstanding. Bishop's financial concerns about better accounting records and stronger paper trails should have been addressed with Thomas as the board treasurer. Thomas routinely paid vendors and contractors in cash with no receipts.

Bishop also accuses me of improprieties in issuing admission tickets as gifts. I absolutely gave free tickets to our volunteers and contestants. I also used them for marketing purposes and service trades. None of these actions were secret and they are certainly acceptable practices for a nonprofit to engage in. I never profited personally from rodeo ticket sales.

Upon completion of the 2013 rodeo, Thomas's accounting was so far off that a meeting was called in which I asked Thomas to bring all of her records for the committee to review. At this meeting, she was asked to step down. Bishop, a former sheriff, is quoted as saying an altercation ensued and "it looked to me like a physical attack." If that were so, why did he not take legal action against me right then and there? The truth is that there was no physical attack. Thomas tossed the box of records at me and stormed off. I was shocked at what I found in that box. There were escrow closings, cancelled checks, bank statements, and other clients' information all mixed in with the mess of rodeo paperwork. I collected up all such documents and gave them to Bishop to return to Thomas. If she mixed up other clients' paperwork in our files, I can only assume some of our paper trail is mixed up in her other files as well.

Bishop resigned from the Rodeo Committee multiple times. In one instance, he removed his red committee shirt and threw it in the dirt in a very public display of anger. He was well known for his hot temper and routinely broke out into fits of yelling, screaming, and cussing in front of contestants and volunteers, including kids. After each resignation, Bishop would calm down and tell the committee "he did not really mean to resign." The committee was fed up and wanted to vote him out; however, the Bylaws created by Bishop did not define how to properly vote him off the board.

As such, I called a meeting to determine how to proceed. At that meeting, the committee members openly stated they would much rather go back to the partnership with the Optimists and would like to cancel the application for the 501(c)(3). I agreed. The next day I contacted the IRS only to learn that Thomas had not submitted the correct fee amount and our status was on hold pending payment of an additional $100. I asked if we could instead cancel the application and have the fees reimbursed. The IRS agent said that would not be a problem so I asked her to proceed based on the desires of the committee members. Unbeknownst to me, Bishop and Thomas were accusing me through Ross's editorials of improperly filing the 501(c)(3) fees when in fact it was Thomas's error. She tried to correct the error by sending in a payment of $100 to the IRS to push the 501(c)(3) through. The IRS agents were always very pleasant and I have never received the first complaint from them. The question on whether or not sales tax is due should be known by Thomas; however, again by her own admission, she has no idea what is owed. The Optimists are currently working to help me get to the bottom of this. If there is any money found to be owed, it will be paid. To date, this has not been found to be so.

As previously stated and admitted by Bishop, I never wanted the responsibility of a corporate status as I simply wanted to put on a rodeo and did not want to manage a corporation. I was completely satisfied with letting the Optimists handle the bookkeeping and had no problem giving them the proceeds to benefit our local youth. Bishop created this problem and now Bishop wants to place its failure on me. Well, that is simply not fair.

Following the four-part editorial published against me, it was brought to my attention that the sponsors of our past rodeos had received an anonymous package in the mail that contained Ross's editorials. As such, when Michael Crane, writing on behalf of the Valley Center Press approached me to collaborate on their Western Days publication I politely declined at the request of my current sponsors. They pointed out that an online search for "Valley Center Rodeo" pulls up Ross's editorial full of slanderous accusations and they felt it hurt them as sponsors. I did not, as publicly asserted by Valley Center Press Owner, Dana Chisholm, ever demand Ross retract his editorials. That would be pointless and irrelevant. However, Chisholm sent an email to the Rodeo Committee, along with another scathing editorial, threatening to publish said editorial in the Western Days publication unless I apologized to Michael Crane for something I never said. She has since published her editorial and publicly stated that she is on a crusade to end the rodeo permanently.

So I have to ask, is it a coincidence that shortly after Chisholm's article and statement to end the rodeo I receive an email that our parking permit application is in question for an editorial series written last fall? I think not. Chisholm and Ross are clearly using the power of the press to hurt the rodeo. Why? I do not know.

I ask that each of you take a closer look at the facts and note that no specific evidence has been presented showing any mishandling of monies with the intent to defraud; nor have any formal complaints by the IRS or State Franchise Tax Board been lodged against me or the Rodeo Committee. It is an absolute injustice that I have had to take the time to defend my character all because a local editor chose to write an 8,000 word complaint against the rodeo with no further due diligence than a one-hour interview with two former committee members with a personal axe to grind. I hope that by sharing my side of the story, this issue will be put to rest and I can get back to putting on the rodeo and raising money for our area youth.

Susan Guenther

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