Two mutual aid societies serving the large Vietnamese and Chinese communities in the Bay Area are under scrutiny. Its members are desperate for help.
Mai Doan of San Jose misses her mother immensely. She died late last year. Doan practices Buddhism and plans to pray for her mother for 49 days.
"My mom means the whole world to me," said Doan.
Her mother was one of an estimated 2,000 people who joined a self-help group in San Jose called Concerned Members Committee. CMC members paid $35 a month on the promise that when they died their survivors would receive death benefits. Some have been paying since the group launched in the year 2000. But we found beneficiaries gathered outside CMC's closed office wondering if they'll ever see the money. Andy Nguyen's mother in law died in July and he says CMC told his family they would get $10,000 by last November. He's still waiting.
"And then I called, nobody answer and that is why I come here. And this is when I see office closed," said Nguyen of San Jose.
Doan suspects she and other surviving members will never get paid.
"I feel disappointed, I feel angry. I feel betrayed," said Doan.
Members claim Davie Ba Ngo has disappeared. We checked. He's been evicted by his landlord for not paying his rent.
"I was very upset, I was very hurt," said David Li of San Francisco.
Li was raised by his grandmother. She was a member of the Vietnamese-Chinese Mutual Aid and Community Center in San Francisco's Chinatown since 1986. She paid more than $11,000 into the fund. When she died in October, the center offered to pay him only $1,400 of the promised $9,000 in benefits.
"I was very disappointed. And at that point, I didn't know how else I was going to handle my grandmother's funeral situation," said Li.
His grandmother didn't want to be cremated, but Li said he had no choice because he didn't have enough money for a burial. John Liu is the community center's president. He says the group's membership has dwindled from 1,400 to just 47 and it can no longer afford the higher payouts.
"If we close down the association, they get nothing," said Liu. "We try to keep the service to our elder members."
He says legal notices advising members of its new rules for payouts were first published in the Chinese language press in 2002. The practice of mutual aid societies helping to pay for funerals dates back more than 160 years in the Chinese community.
When the first Chinese settlers came to America to mine for gold and build the railroads, they formed district associations to assist each other. That included helping with burials. But the president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, Thomas Ng, says that's largely a thing of the past.
"It's out of date already. Usually governmental service agencies help them out," said Ng.
The San Francisco district attorney's office says it has received several complaints about the Vietnam Chinese Mutual Aid Group, but has not said whether it plans to investigate. In San Jose, CMC members and supporters says they've been trying to get attention of authorities for a year.
"They've been totally ignored because they're just a minority, they're Vietnamese, they're old and dying," said Tam Nguyen, an attorney.
"We take these cases very seriously, but they take a while to develop. As so, as of December, as of two months ago, we've assigned a team to this particular case, an investigator and a prosecutor," said Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeffrey Rosen.
In 2003, the district attorney prosecuted two employees of a similar organization for embezzlement. And just two years ago the state attorney general negotiated a settlement and that group agreed to permanently close. Ironically, CMC was formed 10 years ago by former members of that group.