Tennessee Bureau of Investigations detectives continue to look into the possible theft of more than $20,000 of disaster relief funds from the Monroe County Chapter of the American Red Cross.
Officials with the American Red Cross East Tennessee Region say they contacted police about the missing money after an internal audit of debit cards in late March did not add up in Monroe County.
"Whenever there is a disaster, be it a tornado or a fire, we have volunteers check to make sure victims have everything they need to survive," said Boyd Romines, CEO of the Knoxville Area Chapter of the American Red Cross. "We use a specific protocol to determine how much relief people qualify for. Then we can load that money onto credit or debit cards so people can buy clothes, food, and anything else they need. That money comes from the donors of East Tennessee."
A consolidation of 10 individual county chapters under one large regional umbrella began last July. Romines said the consolidation means Knoxville now serves as the region's headquarters and helps oversees disaster relief funds throughout the area.
The March 2 storms that tore through Tellico Plains and the rest of East Tennessee provided one of the first tests for the regional disaster assistance model. A couple of weeks after the storm, the regional office noticed some missing paperwork for debit cards issued by the Monroe County Chapter.
"We sent volunteers and staff members down there [Monroe County] to see about some of the missing cards. Honestly, we thought it was just an accounting issue that we would clear up. What we found was unfortunately some real discrepancies. We currently believe around $28,000 has been misappropriated."
TBI spokesperson Kristen Helm indicated the missing money is "$20,000 and involved questionable withdrawals from ATMs in Madisonville, Sweetwater, and Athens.
"Our Monroe County office happens to be just across the street from the police department. Our folks walked straight over and immediately notified law enforcement when they found these discrepancies. I've seen some headlines that said TBI was investigating the Red Cross for misusing funds. I think it is important that people know the Red Cross is who launched this investigation," said Romines. "Almost never does anything like this happen. We have safeguards and checks and balances to make sure this kind of thing does not happen. That is also why we caught this within a couple of weeks. Unfortunately, everyone from banks to churches occasionally have to deal with these situations sometimes."
Romines said loading money on debit cards requires access to passwords and specific Red Cross training.
"We want to be careful at this point we are not accusing anyone of
anything. We are not mentioning any individuals per the request of investigators. But we are looking at everyone who had access to these cards," said Romines. "We take this very seriously. Donor dollars and the use of them
correctly are of the utmost importance to the Red Cross. We are supporting law
enforcement and doing everything we can to bring those responsible to justice."
Denny Westby served as executive director of Monroe County's Red Cross chapter. He is no longer employed by the American Red Cross.
Romines said Westby's employment with the Red Cross ended May 7, 2012. Westby was in the process of transferring to Knoxville for a position with disaster services as part of the aforementioned consolidation of chapters. Romines said Westby's employment ended before the transfer took place.
Helm indicated the 10th Judicial District Attorney General
is who requested TBI's assistance with the investigation and "will be given the TBI case file when it is complete." The 10th Judicial District includes Bradley, McMinn, Monroe, and Polk Counties.