By Robert Carter
North Jefferson News
BIRMINGHAM — The longtime head of the Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity has admitted to stealing nearly half a million dollars from the organization.
Ruth Gayle Cunningham, who was executive director of the JCCEO for more than two decades before her resignation in March, was charged with theft from a government program which has received $10,000 or more from the federal government, according to papers filed in U.S. District Court on Friday. Cunningham's daughter, Kelli Caulfield, was also charged.
In a plea deal with prosecutors, the women admitted to setting up a scheme whereby JCCEO funds were used to make mortgage payments on at least three residential properties that Cunningham owned, plus at least five that Caulfield owned. In addition, Caulfield admitted to creating fraudulent invoices for work done on those properties by contracting companies she owned, with her mother approving payment.
All of the payments were for less than $5,000, the limit under which Cunningham could sign checks without requiring a second signature form a board member.
"JCCEO is an organization with 50 years of history helping some of our poorest citizens become part of the American Dream with education and assistance funded in part by federal taxpayer dollars," U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance said in a prepared statement. "Cunningham abused the trust and discretion she was given to use this money wisely to benefit those in our community who are struggling. She used the agency's government funds as a personal piggy bank so that she and her daughter could line their pockets with hundreds of thousands of dollars intended to lift others out of poverty."
Cunningham headed the JCCEO for more than two decades. Caulfield worked for the committee as well from 2009 to last January.
The women have agreed to repay the JCCEO for the improper payments. Cunningham and Caulfield must jointly repay $492,195; Caulfield will also repay $253,499 on her own. Both will faces prison sentences of 10 years for theft from a federal program, plus five years for defrauding a federal program, as well as fines of up to $500,000.
The scheme was discovered by the FBI while they were investigating a separate mortgage fraud scheme by Robert Hollman of Dothan and Brad Bozeman of Hoover. Both men also entered plea deals, and will make restitution of more than $430,000 combined, as well as facing up to five years in prison and $250,000 fines.
All of the plea agreements were announced in a press conference Friday at Vance's office.