COWP asks creditors for patience as MBA continues to investigate alleged fraud

By : Jamie Hyman
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Orlando Come Out With Pride organizers are asking creditors for some time and patience when it comes to repayment.

In a letter sent Jan. 20, COWP’s finance director, Michael Thomas, acknowledges that while Orlando’s pride event gets bigger every year, last year was its “least profitable year.”

“This was solely due to the gross mismanagement of funds by the Executive Director at the time, whom has since been terminated and this paid position will not be replaced until the organization fully recovers,” the letter reads.

Thomas and Nayte Carrick, the president of the Metropolitan Business Association, have not yet answered inquiries as to how many creditors received the letter and who they are. The MBA is COWP’s parent organization.

“As the current finance director, I want to be upfront and honest with you,” Thomas writes in the letter. “I have no intention of ignoring you and will keep you updated throughout our process. I am more than happy to discuss this further with you via phone or in person by appointment. We fully intend on paying any debts owed.”

The letter then explains that COWP makes most of its money on Pride day and therefore, creditors will not be repaid until Oct. 19, one week after COWP 2015.

“Before then, any extra monies not needed for event deposits, permits, etc. will be divvied up equitably between the debtors [sic] owed,” the letter reads. “We can’t promise any specific dollar amounts as you never know what amount of proceeds can be made from any fundraising activities.”

Thomas also states that if there is no Pride event, no one will be repaid.

“If COWP is forced into a bankruptcy situation, there are no assets to the organization and no one will get any debts paid,” the letter reads.

Thomas also outlines ways creditors can assist, including refraining “from any legal actions that will prevent the event from happening,” and forgiving debts in trade for sponsorships or booths.

“We have one vendor that has already agreed to forgive their debt by giving them exclusive vendor rights for the next 3 years,” the letter reads.

In regards the earlier reference to COWP’s former executive director, Thomas is citing the firing of Mikael Audebert, who was let go late 2014 from his role as COWP executive director. The MBA has investigated allegations of alleged fraud since Audebert’s termination. Watermark recently received an update from Carrick regarding those allegations, and Carrick said there is still a $1,300 transaction to Audebert “that was both unauthorized and for personal gain.”

The transaction is reimbursement for use of Audebert’s airline miles for airline tickets, which Audebert has stated was approved by the MBA treasurer at the time.

Carrick mentioned that there is a small list of Pride transactions that were Audebert’s personal expenses and outside of his salary and commission agreement. However, “It is noteworthy that PRIDE was at the same time behind in base salary payments in an amount larger than the personal expenses that were paid for using PRIDE’s credit cards,” he said in an email to Watermark.

Carrick said it’s more of the same for Converge, which was another organization under the MBA Audebert had overseen – personal expenses paid, but Converge was also behind on salary and “those purchases totaled less than the amount of salary outstanding due [Audebert].”

“It is nice to see MBA finally own up to the thousands of dollars that are owed to Mr. Audebert,” said Patrick Howell, Audebert’s attorney. “Those past due commissions, plus the defamatory comments made previously, will be the subject matter of a very comprehensive lawsuit against MBA and some of its Board members and advisors.”

Carrick said the next step is to finish the internal review then report on their findings to the MBA board.

“There is not an official indication at this time of what actions the review committee will recommend to the board, but we will be working with the board, community partners, and appropriate authorities to take appropriate action,” he said.

In the meantime, Carrick pointed out that since Audebert’s firing in November, the MBA has make a number of changes to improve the organizations’ financial and community standing.

Those changes include a new office at a savings of $30,000 over 12 months, new memberships which provide a financial boost, a streamlined COWP budget that cuts expenses by more than $100,000 and partnership with an accounting firm to improve financial practices.

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