As earlier reported in the media, Jeffrey Cooper of Patagonia admitted that he was guilty of felony theft in connection with funds belonging to the Mountain Empire Trails Association (META). On September 23, he was sentenced to two years of probation and four weekends in the Adult Correctional Facility.
Nearly everyone who knows Jeffrey Cooper describes him as a “charming” man. Well-liked, environmentally active, community minded, Cooper was a popular member of the Patagonia community for years.
The news that he had been prosecuted for stealing $4,625 from the Mountain Empire Trails Association came as shock to many, but not to everyone. PRT has learned that over the last seven years, Jeffrey Cooper took financial advantage of other community institutions as well, in one case as much as $10,000 is unaccounted for.
In 2002 when Cooper was laid off by the Nature Conservancy (staff say it was for funding reasons) he was hired as Patagonia’s librarian. Staff members report that during his time at the library, Cooper was rarely there, and that responsibilities that he claimed to have attended to were, in fact, left undone. (Boxes of inner-library loan books were discovered that had never been returned.) He was deemed a failure by those who worked with him and in 2005 was about to be fired for mismanagement of operations and funds when he resigned to take a position with La Semilla, a community stewardship organization that was working with the Three Canyons development.
According to library board minutes, The Friends of the Library provided $3,000-$5,000 to clean up the deficit that Cooper left. His bookkeeping was in disarray and no one can say just how much money was unaccounted for. The library board’s minutes indicate that nothing would be done about the sloppy accounting. Cooper was granted “amnesty.”
In 2005 The Community Coalition of Eastern Santa Cruz County was incorporated by Cooper and several other area residents. Cooper was elected vice president. Their stated purpose was to “promote and facilitate healthy intergenerational and community building activities. ..” At some point in the succeeding years, the formalities normally required of corporate directors and officers appear to have been abandoned, leaving the Coalition’s administration solely in Cooper’s hands.
In 2006 Cooper, on behalf of the Coalition, applied to the Patagonia Regional Community Foundation (PRCF) for a grant to start a youth center, and was awarded $10,000. During this time Cooper became a PRCF board member. There is no evidence that he did anything with this money until 2010, when he reported that $2,000 was used to set up a gathering place for young people known as “The Den.”
In September of 2011, Cooper told the PRCF board that he was working to put together an agreement with the schools. The board wanted a deadline for a full report, otherwise the remaining $8,000 would have to be returned. After he was told, this Cooper’s attendance at PRCF board meetings became very sporadic.
In Arizona, most community foundations report to the Arizona Community Foundation (ACF) in Phoenix, run by paid professionals who oversee grants and finances. In November 2011, staff from ACF began coming to Patagonia to question Cooper about the youth center. In January and February of 2012, ACF staff reassured the Patagonia chapter that they thought Cooper was carrying out the stated mission of the Community Coalition and that a report was forthcoming.
Meanwhile the Mountain Empire Trails Association (META), because it had no nonprofit status, had put itself under the umbrella of the Community Coalition. Cooper was one of META’s founding members. The Trails organization turned its funds over to him, believing that the Community Coalition was still a viable organization.
On February 24, 2012 Cooper, under pressure to account for some bounced checks, provided the Trails Committee with checks from the Coalition totaling $4,625. The bank told META there were insufficient funds to clear these checks. It appeared there was no money in the Coalition account. META’s $4,625 was gone, along with the balance of the $10,000 grant money for the Youth Center. It wasn’t until these discoveries that action was taken. META reported their missing funds to the police.
They also reported the loss to the ACF, who quickly sent a representative to Patagonia. At the ensuing board meeting, ACF told the PRCF board that their legal department would deal with the loss of $10,000. They were urged to talk about their feelings in the meeting, but were made to swear to tell no one else.
In the intervening months, ACF’s legal arm did nothing. When the Patagonia Regional Times asked about it, the ACF at first denied that they knew anything about the problem and then explained that the cost of legal action would be more than the $10,000 that was missing. As it turns out, justice does not have to cost a lot of money.
The police investigated META’s complaint and laid out a case against Cooper that resulted in his conviction. The cost of this conviction was built into the criminal justice department’s budget. It cost META nothing but the heartache of knowing that a member of the community whom they trusted had stolen from them.
In anticipation of Cooper’s sentencing hearing, META member Betsy McGee wrote to Deputy County Attorney Tom O’Sullivan, “I strongly feel that reducing the felony charge to a misdemeanor would dilute the gravity of this crime. This theft was not only a serious crime it was a grave betrayal of trust and friendship toward myself and many in the Patagonia community. This crime was not a one-time occurrence. There has been a pattern of deceit and misappropriation of monies for years. Jeffrey took money that community non-profits worked extremely hard to raise. Jeffrey must accept responsibility for the severity of his actions and experience appropriate consequences.”