Director admits to personal use of museum accounts

August 19, 2010 7:38:48 PM PDT
The Petaluma Wildlife Museum's innovative program is one of a kind in the United States and a point of pride for many in the community. But now the once thriving program is scraping for pennies. How they got here is not a total mystery -- the museum's board knows the current director has been taking money from museum accounts for personal use.

It was a big undertaking for a small group of volunteers in 1990 -- turn a bus barn into a wildlife museum on the Petaluma High School campus and teach students how to run it. From the outside, you would never suspect what's inside. It is packed to the rafters with a quirky collection of donated big game trophies -- the head of an elephant, a polar bear, a bengal tiger, even a rare jaguar -- just to name a few.

The program's formula was simple, give teens a lot of responsibility and they will succeed.

"They want to learn, they want to work, they want to be part of something, and the museum became part of these kids' lives," said museum founder Ron Head.

Students in the program take classes on wildlife management, learn to care for the live animals that live there, and lead elementary school tours. Head was the founder and the Petaluma High School teacher in charge of the program when it began.

"I saw what kids could do and how a museum could motivate kids," said Head. "Give them something really to come to school for."

But today the program is in trouble and the museum is in disrepair. Money is missing from museum accounts and the current director is under scrutiny. Marsi Wier has been the director and teacher in charge of the high school program for a decade. Until recently, she has had open access to the museum's checkbook, a museum credit card, and very little supervision.

The I-Team obtained documents and checks that reveal Wier spent a lot of museum money on herself.

Noyes: Have you written checks to cash and put them in your own account?

Weir: No. Never.

Noyes: OK. (pulls out documents)

Weir: Oh, well maybe, OK.

Noyes: So maybe you have... (indicates on checks) cash? And then your account?

Weir: Yes.

The I-Team has many copies of checks that were written to cash with Wier's account and signature on the back. Wier says she needed cash to shop at Costco or to buy things for the museum she found at garage sales. We asked her to let us see the receipts. Through her lawyer she declined.

Bank statements and checks also show Wier used museum funds for weekly trips to the gas station, restaurants, nail salons and massages. She bought a $659 air conditioner that never made it to the museum. She also wrote checks to her husband.

Noyes: Why write checks to your husband?

Wier: I have no idea why I did that at that time.

And we found museum checks written to babysitters and Happy Days Preschool for her own kids.

"Let's say I didn't get out of here until after 5 o'clock, I'd pay some for Happy Days and had the museum pay some. All that money was paid back to the museum. I paid $1,399 back plus interest. That was never board approved and that was something that I... that I just did."

Wier would not provide us with proof she had reimbursed the money, but museum staff confirmed in the case of Happy Days Preschool, she had paid $725 back after she was confronted by the museum's board of directors last fall. And after our interview she sent the board a check for $360 for babysitting.

There are other discrepancies in the museum's books. Wier's name frequently appears in the record of vendors paid. She bills the museum for animal health care, tide pool maintenance, promotion, facilities maintenance, and something called "appliances and furniture."

Wier says this was just her way to reimburse herself for expenses.

Noyes: But that's not the way things are done when you're running a business or even a non-profit.

Wier: Well, you know, what can I say? I've had no accountability ever in 10 years, I've had no help, I've had nobody ask ... meaning, the amount of money that it takes on a daily basis to keep this place going.

Because the books are in such bad shape, no one we talked to can really say how much is missing for sure. Museum insiders tell us a conservative estimate would be at least $30,000.

Museum board president George Grossi says he thinks its lower, maybe a couple thousand, but he adds either way, the board never approved any of the expenses in this story. And he acknowledges that there was no system in place to keep track of Wier's spending.

"And that's our fault," said Grossi. "There's no question about that part of it, but we assumed that a teacher in a school is doing everything right and we didn't need to cover all those little things, but hey, we find out that we should have."

Now they want to make things right. They started investigating Wier last fall, took away her ability to handle museum money, and just this month, they removed her from her position as museum director. They also moved her classroom from the museum to the building next door.

"We are definitely aware of what's going on and we just want the community to know that we are taking action," said Grossi.

That is where it gets complicated. The museum is a non-profit, but it actually sits on Petaluma School District property. The district pays Wier's salary and oversees the classes she teaches for the museum. And the missing money is donor money, not district money.

The principal at Petaluma High School, Brian Howard, refused to be interviewed about Wier and the museum. By phone he told the I-Team it is a personnel issue.

But last week, principal Howard told the museum board Wier stays as the teacher in charge. She is not going anywhere.

"The museum on its current path can't survive much longer," said Larry Powell, one of the original volunteers who built the museum.

When he learned about the problems he wrote a letter to Petaluma School District superintendent Greta Viguie asking her to remove Wier.

The superintendent answered in writing: "The District does not agree with your assertion that any mismanagement and inappropriate use of museum funds would have occurred during our teacher's instructional day."

Noyes: You sent that letter trying to get some action.

Powell: Exactly, trying to get somebody to do something because they just can't sit there and watch the museum go down.

Superintendent Viguie declined to be interviewed and on Wednesday, Wier came back to her classroom for another year at the museum.

"It's so sad, these kids work so hard for that program," said parent Lori Glenn whose two children were both museum students in high school. "When you've got a person in authority, your teacher, your leader, that's doing that, what are you teaching your kids? You're teaching your kids that basically it's OK to break the law."

"It's a very important program to this community and I had hundreds and hundreds of people buy into this program," said Head. "I think it's an insult, a slap in the face to the community. It's certainly a slap in the face and an embarrassment to the students."

The museum's board says they are worried that media attention could scare away critical donors, but they are also hopeful public scrutiny might help their cause.

"I think by Channel 7 coming in and pushing it a little bit, we quickly responded and I think it will help us get this program back on track where we need to be, and that the school district understands that we need to save this program," said Grossi.

And that is really the priority here. Everyone we talked to said one thing -- save the museum. They are hoping this story helps the school district see the light.

We should also tell you that under Wier, the museum's bank account was in the red and racking up monthly overdraft fees and now that the museum board is handling the finances, staff tell us they have built the account back up to about $30,000 in just 10 months.

If you have a tip about misspending of public funds, send us an e-mail here or call 1-888-40-I-TEAM.


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