As the FBI office in Fortuna investigates an alleged embezzlement scheme in which 47-year-old bookkeeper Nina Tafarella is suspected of stealing from a local dance studio, Humboldt County Fair Association General Manager Rich Silacci says Tafarella also appears to have embezzled several hundred thousand dollars from the fair association, where she was employed until her arrest in November.
Silacci is hesitant to speculate about how much Tafarella may have embezzled until a Fortuna accounting firm completes a forensic audit of the nonprofit fair association’s books, but after looking through the available financial documents himself he believes the figure could be between $300,000 and $400,000.
“It looks that way,” Silacci said in a recent phone interview, “but I want a professional to say, ‘This is what it is.’”
As first reported by the North Coast Journal, Tafarella was arrested on Nov. 15 at the Bear River Casino and booked on suspicion of embezzling from a nonprofit Eureka dance studio, where she worked as a bookkeeper. Silacci said he reached out to law enforcement after learning that a felony warrant had been issued for Tafarella because she had also been handling the fair’s finances for nearly two years.
Asked whether anyone besides Tafarella was regularly examining the organization’s bank statements and payroll reconciliation reports, Silacci said, “She [Tafarella] would have been the only one. … I was relying on the reports I was receiving,” he continued, “and no one else in the office was reconciling accounts.”
The fair association’s board of directors was also relying on the accuracy of information provided by Tafarella, according to Board President Andy Titus.
“From what I gather, none of the information that goes to the board would have allowed the board to pick up on what was going on,” he said in a phone interview. “The information we see in our board packets would have never — we would have never caught it.”
Financial documents obtained through a Public Records Act request filed by former Ferndale Enterprise owner and publisher Caroline Titus (a distant relation through marriage to Andy) and later provided to the Outpost suggest that the embezzlement was achieved primarily, if not exclusively, via payments to a fake employee.
Payroll reconciliation reports from the Humboldt County Fair Association show that in August of 2021 Tafarella began issuing direct deposits in the name of Bryce J. Bill.
There is no Bryce J. Bill employed by the fair association. The fair association’s board of directors confirmed as much to Caroline Titus during its December meeting, as documented in an audio recording, and Silacci later confirmed it to the Outpost, saying it appears to be a fake employee invented by Tafarella.
If so, she chose a name that closely resembles that of an actual fair employee, a maintenance worker named Bryce T. Bell, who received his own, presumably legitimate payments from the fair association during Tafarella’s tenure.
However, Bryce J. Bill got paid a lot more.
The first direct deposit to “Bill,” debited from the fair’s payroll account on Aug. 9, 2021, was for $426.41. The next, in the amount of $1,098, was issued that same day. The 2021 Humboldt County Fair was held in late August, and in the account ledger payments to Bill are mixed in among hundreds of others, a reflection of how the fair association staffs up during fair time.
But according to the payroll reconciliation reports, the payments to Bryce J. Bill didn’t stop after the fair was over. For a while, Bill received payments every other week, including another double payment on Aug. 24. The amounts ranged from a little over $700 to more than $2,300. In September the frequency of payments to Bill began to increase, and by late October he was getting paid every few days — $2,111.77 on the 21st, $1,425.04 four days later, $2,464.15 three days after that, and so on.
Between Aug. 9 and Nov. 29 of 2021, the Humboldt County Fair Association paid the fictitious Bryce J. Bill more than $51,000, according to the official reports. After that there’s a gap in the records, with no payroll expenses reported (save a $367.20 payment to the IRS in January) until March of 2022. Four more payments were issued to Bill in the first 10 days of March, totalling more than $7,000, though the records say those payments were later “deleted.”
After March, the fair association’s payroll reconciliation reports disappeared. Or perhaps they were never completed.
“The fact is, from our office, we don’t have them,” Silacci told to the Outpost. “It just simply wasn’t done, I think, by our bookkeeper.”
But another set of records — statements from the fair association’s payroll account at U.S. Bank, also obtained via Public Records Act request — suggest that the embezzlement continued well into 2022. Silacci said the fair association maintains very limited staff when it’s not in the midst of running the annual county fair. A typical off-season monthly payroll would be “around the $20,000 range,” he said. Bank statements covering the first 10 months of 2022 show that withdrawals far exceeded that level, averaging close to $60,000 in the off season and much more than that in July, August and September.
All told, in the first 10 months of 2022 there was almost $400,000 in withdrawals above and beyond what Silacci said is typical, which is why he suspects Tafarella could have embezzled that much.
“When you look at the [payments to the] fake employee, you can get to a couple of those numbers in a hurry,” he told the Outpost.
Over the past year and change, the fair association was in an uncommonly ripe position, financially, for anyone looking to fleece the organization. After finishing 2019 in the red, the association turned a corner in 2020 despite canceling the Humboldt County Fair due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020 and 2021 the organization received almost $200,000 in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds plus $316,640 in state subsidies, according to the Ferndale Enterprise. In June of 2021 the Board of Supervisors approved a $200,000 budget allocation to help finance the county fair.
With the worst of the pandemic over, the Humboldt County Fair was a financial success in 2021 and an even bigger success last year. Despite the suspected embezzlement, the fair association ended the year with more than a million dollars in the bank.
“Financially the fair’s in as good of shape as it’s ever been,” Silacci said.
He won’t be with the fair association much longer. On Dec. 5, about two and a half weeks after Tafarella’s arrest, he submitted his resignation to the Board of Directors, saying he’d work through the end of January. He said he’d made his decision to leave prior to the discovery of anomalies in the association’s books. Three members of the Board of Directors have also resigned since late last year.
The fair association’s financial records have now been turned over to Fortuna accounting firm Anderson, Lucas, Somerville & Borges, LLP, for a full audit. Looking back, Silacci said the fair association was clearly not keeping close enough tabs on its finances. The California Department of Food and Agriculture requires fair associations to undergo a financial review annually and a comprehensive audit every three years, but the Humboldt County Fair Association doesn’t appear to have been fully audited since 2012.
“I was told by previous management that that had been done at some point, but Caroline [Titus] and I, the last one we found was from 2012. Now that all needs to be caught up.”
For his own part, Silacci said he simply didn’t look closely enough.
“I was reliant on the reports and information I received from the bookkeeper’s office,” he said.
As for the bank statements and payroll reconciliation reports? “I didn’t bother to go looking for those,” Silacci replied. “I assumed the job was being done until this all came out.”
Tafarella was first hired by Katherine Ziemer, executive director of the Humboldt County Farm Bureau, which contracted with the fair association for her services from Nov. 1, 2020, through Oct. 31, 2021. Reached by phone, Ziemer said she hired Tafarella because she had skills on QuickBooks, the accounting software used by the fair association.
“She had three other jobs that she was doing work with,” Ziemer said, adding, “I’ve been asked not to say too much because there’s an ongoing investigation.”
Messages left for agents at the Fortuna office of the FBI were not returned. A voicemail left at a number listed in Tafarella’s name was also not returned. Her case remains under review and she has yet to be charged with any crimes stemming from her arrest, according to the Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office.
Andy Titus said he is committed to tightening controls.
“I can tell you what’s going to change,” he said. “We will have a third party we pay to audit [the financial reporting] on a monthly basis. That has been decided by the board. We will find somebody to audit and reconcile on a monthly basis, and then a yearly audit to make sure the risk of this happening again is minimized.”
The fair association has had a challenging time finding a new bookkeeper, but Titus said the board will keep looking because someone honest and competent is what’s needed.
“All I can say is that [the embezzlement] was not a one-time thing,” he said. “It was [happening] over the course of her whole time working there, looks like, and we [on the board] are going to do everything in our power to minimize those opportunities happening in the future.”
He said the board has been criticized in the past for being too hands-on, for interfering with the work of employees rather than allowing them to do their job.
“But then you step back and it’s, ‘Well, how can you let this happen?’ You can’t have it both ways, people,” he said. “But I can guarantee you there will be a lot more eyes looking at this stuff for a long time after this scenario.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post listed an incorrect figure for state subsidies received by the Humboldt County Fair Association. The Outpost regrets the error.