Former Jefferson County official charged with federal crimes

(WIAT-TV, CBS 42 News)
(WIAT-TV, CBS 42 News)

[lin_video src=http://eplayer.clipsyndicate.com/embed/player.js?aspect_ratio=16x9&auto_next=1&auto_start=0&div_id=videoplayer-1375484152&height=480&page_count=5&pf_id=9624&pl_id=21958&show_title=1&va_id=4190610&width=640&windows=2 service=syndicaster width=640 height=480 div_id=videoplayer-1375484152 type=script]BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — The U.S. Attorney’s office has charged former executive director of the Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity and her daughter with theft and fraud.

Ruth Gayle Cunningham and her daughter Kelli E. Caulfield admitted to stealing almost $500,000 dollars from JCCEO. Cunningham was the director of the non-profit for more than 20 years before resigning from the job in March 2013.

The Pre-K program Head Start depends on the JCCEO for funding. CBS 42 News spoke with Cunningham earlier this year as part of a news story on looming state budget cuts. Then, she said any cuts would hurt the program.

“It would be a real dent in the progress of low-income children toward success in school and success in life,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham will plead guilty to stealing from that same program to make mortgage payments on at least eight different homes in Jefferson and Shelby counties. According to court records, Cunningham purchased a home in Chelsea through a mortgage loan of more than $1 million dollars in 2007.

“Taking $500,000 dollars out of the amount available for these fundings is simply unconscionable given what the money was intended to do,” U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance said.

As executive director of JCCEO, Cunningham had check-signing authority up to $5,000 dollars. All of the invoices Caulfield prepared for her mother to submit for payment by JCCEO were below $5,000 dollars and required no second signature from a JCCEO board member.

The FBI discovered the fraud at JCCEO while investigating allegations of a mortgage fraud scheme.

The new executive director of the JCCEO, Dr. Marquita Davis, said the amount of money stolen accounts for 1.5 percent of the organization’s total budget.

“The funding in question does not impact any of our existing programs,” Davis said. “Our focus today is on re-enforcing the stability within those programs.”

Cunningham and her daughter have signed agreements with the government to plead guilty to the charges against them. Together, they are responsible for repaying $492,195 dollars to JCCEO, according to their plea agreements. The maximum penalty for theft from a federally funded program is 10 years in prison and a $250,000 dollar fine. The maximum penalty for conspiracy to defraud a federally funded program is five years in prison and a $250,000 dollar fine.

Trial dates for Cunningham and Caulfield have not been set.

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