MBA board will likely to go to police with fraud allegations

By : Jamie Hyman
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Orlando – After weeks of internal investigation, the Metropolitan Business Association is expected to go to the authorities with their findings of alleged financial fraud by the organization’s former president.

Mikael Audebert resigned from the MBA in October and was fired from his post as executive director of Come Out With Pride in November. Since then, the MBA Board and its subsidiary organizations have revealed a financial mess, blaming Audebert, but until now had not accused Audebert of any criminal wrongdoing.

“The Financial Committee has come to the conclusion that wrong was done,” said Nayte Carrick, current president of the MBA. “Because of that, we are recommending to the board that they file a police report and pursue criminal action.”

Carrick said the Board will be presented with a full report Dec. 5, “unless astounding new information becomes available.”

“We feel very confident that we’ll get a unanimous vote to move forward,” he said.

Carrick said there are numerous occasions where funds were spent inappropriately, primarily where one subsidiary would pay another subsidiary’s expenses without board authorization.

“There’s a big difference between an unauthorized transaction and a fraudulent transaction,” he said, confirming that there are two key transactions that the committee feels were fraudulent.
One was a $1,300 transfer from the MBA account to Audebert’s personal business account.

“It was unauthorized for him to take that money,” Carrick said.

The second transaction was for $2,000, listed in accounting records as a transfer to an MBA escrow account.

“The MBA doesn’t have an escrow account,” Carrick said. “There was a $2,000 cash withdrawal, and the signature on the withdrawal slip was Mikael’s.”

He said only charges that have been thoroughly vetted will be reported to the police, and while there are instances of suspicious activity, “it’s not something we can put into a police report right now. We don’t want this to sit on a shelf somewhere. We want this to be vigorously pursued.”

Audebert would not comment directly on those transactions, but responded through his attorney, Patrick Howell.

“Nayte’s lying,” Howell said. “[Mikael] was questioned about all this back in August.”

Howell said the $2,000 was a transfer into a special joint account shared by the MBA and The GLBT Center of Central Florida, Inc. set up to handle expenses related to The Harvey Milk Diversity Breakfast.

“This was not money Mikael took,” Howell said. “This is for an event that the MBA agreed to and put on with The Center.”

He said the $1,300 was a reimbursement to Audebert for two Delta Airline tickets to Las Vegas for an MBA event.

“To make it cheaper for MBA, Mikael used his own miles and then an agreed upon assigned value for those miles was put on the tickets,” Howell said, adding that the agreed upon value was $650 per ticket.

Howell forwarded to Watermark emails that show a receipt from the flights and Audebert’s request for reimbursement from the MBA treasurer. He also shared a list of “questioned charges” the MBA sent Audebert, with Audebert’s explanations.

“They spent the past few months combing these accounts, and this is all they’ve come up with? It’s stuff that has been questioned previously and has been answered. The answers make sense. They’re not money in his pockets. They’re for reimbursement. It’s nothing like what [MBA Board members] say happened,” Howell said.

Carrick said once the report is completed, it will be available to MBA members.

“We are at what feels like the end of our own internal investigation, and we feel it’s time to turn it over to somebody else to complete it,” he said, adding that investigations are still ongoing into the financials of COWP and Converge, the MBA subsidiary organization that was focused on LGBT travel.

“There are similar patterns of unauthorized transactions among those organizations, but so far the investigation doesn’t have concrete answers,” Carrick said. “We’re still answering questions.”

Further investigation may reveal more problems.

“There are some transactions that we have a strong feeling are personal expenses but it would be difficult to prove that explicitly, so those transactions are taken off the table as far as what we’re filing with the report,” Carrick said.

Despite the allegations, Carrick said the MBA’s financial situation is currently stable.

“We don’t have a significant amount of money but we know that with the money we have, and the bills we have, and the commitment we have for sponsorships, we are completely covered financially through March [of 2015],” he said. “We are paying our bills and we have a lot of plans to shore ourselves up financially.”

He said the MBA did not have a savings account or any financial contingency plans, and those are among the goals for 2015.

“The MBA took a hit,” Carrick said. “This was challenging. With the cooperation of the entire board, we’re really going to be fine from a financial perspective. We’re making a lot of smart moves to come out of this very quickly.”

Those moves include new headquarters. Over Thanksgiving weekend, the MBA moved from the Plaza Building downtown, which cost the organization around $5,000 a month, to an office on the second floor of the Barry Miller Law Building in Thornton Park. The new office costs about $2,800 a month, with subtenants covering about $1,500 of that plus concessions that will “make it essentially free for the first three months,” Carrick said. He added that the opportunity came together quickly but they still managed to get lunch, workers and supplies donated.

“The actual moving cost was $60.25, and that was for gas for the van,” Carrick said.

In addition to the ongoing investigations, the MBA is working on clarifying its structure when it comes to the subsidiary organizations. At a heated board meeting Nov 19, it looked like Converge was on the verge of dissolving and The Wedding Alliance would sever ties with the MBA. Since then, however, Carrick said they have smoothed things over and that both subsidiaries are operational. He said the MBA board is communicating with The Wedding Alliance but at this point, there is not “an official relationship.”

The situation with Converge is similar.

“We’re also continuing to work out what [the relationship between Converge and MBA] actually is, how it is best for us to interact with each other,” Carrick said.

In the meantime, Carrick and the MBA board are facing a daunting task – to unite a divided membership.

“Mikael spent years building the Mikael brand,” he said. “There are lots of people who believe in him and see the positive things he did in the community. He did a lot of very positive things. He led COWP and MBA toward growth. That’s being overshadowed by the challenges we are facing because of decisions he made. We’re wading through that. He was also the one that made the decisions that caused [COWP] to be in financial difficulty. We have no desire to trash him. We only have desire to grow.”

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