Former exec for Seattle nonprofits pleads guilty to blowing $3m on casinos, clothes, travel
The former finance director of two Seattle nonprofits pleaded guilty Tuesday to two felony counts of federal wire fraud.
Susana Tantico is charged with embezzling more than $3 million from the Country Doctor Community Health Centers and later the violence prevention group Community Passageways, between 2011 and 2020. Charging documents said Tantico spent the money on personal expenses including gambling, clothing, and travel, and created false ledger entries to conceal her actions.
Court documents said Tantico stole the greater part of the money, $2.3 million, from Country Doctor, which first hired her to work in its finance department in 1999. Tantico eventually became head of finance for the organization, which focuses on treating populations that are underserved by the health care system. Much of the group’s funding comes from federal, state, and local grants.
Tantico used the organization’s credit and debit cards to withdraw $1.6 million at casinos. She used the same credit cards to make tens of thousands of dollars in purchases at Nordstrom and Apple, and to fly multiple family members to Disney World in 2018.
Evidence laid out in an “information” charging document filed last Thursday said Tantico created false documents and journal entries to make fraudulent transactions appear legitimate.
“For example,” the filing said, “Tantico made it appear that the funds she used to pay for her trip to Florida had actually been used for healthcare supplies.”
During her time at Country Doctor, charging documents said Tantico lied to auditors and helped formulate policies “that she was actively violating,” such as prohibiting the use of the organization’s credit cards for personal expenses.
In a statement Tuesday, Country Doctor board members said they discovered Tantico’s fraud only after she had left to work for Community Passageways.
“When an internal team identified accounting irregularities, we immediately notified authorities and our grantors, and the FBI conducted an 18-month-long investigation," they said. "Tantico was no longer an employee at the time the fraud was identified. During this time, the FBI advised us to keep this information confidential to ensure the integrity of the investigation.”
In June 2020, Tantico left her position at Country Doctor to become director of finance at Community Passageways, which focuses on community safety initiatives including gun violence prevention in King County.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, once in that job, “Tantico used more than $485,000 of the non-profit’s funds for gambling at casinos. She transferred $21,000 from the non-profit to her mortgage servicer to pay her home mortgage. She also transferred money to her personal bank account. Tantico then altered the bank records to hide the embezzlement. At one point, she was questioned by one of the organization’s banks about all the withdrawals at casinos. She claimed that the non-profit held youth programs at the casinos and claimed the withdrawals were for cash prize giveaways. In all, Tantico stole nearly $893,000 from the non-profit. The non-profit has incurred $132,000 in costs to forensically audit its books, fix its accounting procedures and records, and reply to vendors.”
Community Passageways publicly disclosed the FBI investigation into an unnamed former employee last summer, in response to questions from KUOW. At the time, Seattle and King County had pledged more than $20 million toward the group’s efforts.
Community Passageways spokesperson and Chief Operations Officer Katoya Palmer said in July 2022 that the FBI notified them months earlier that one of their employees was under investigation for potentially misappropriating the group’s funds. Palmer said Community Passageways terminated the individual immediately, and they were pursuing available options to recover the money.
Court filings show that a public defender was appointed for Tantico on July 20, 2022, but she was never arrested or taken into custody.
On Tuesday at the federal courthouse in Seattle, Tantico submitted her guilty plea to federal magistrate judge Kate Vaughan. Vaughan told Tantico she would need support and treatment to address her gambling addiction. The conditions for Tantico’s release include a prohibition on gambling, restricted travel to Western Washington, and she must inform potential employers of her guilty plea. Tantico has also agreed to forfeit any property or assets derived from her fraudulent activities, and to pay restitution to her former employers.
Wire fraud is a class C felony punishable by a maximum of 20 years in prison, but under Tantico’s plea agreement, prosecutors will request no more than 41 months. Her sentence is enhanced because of the amount of money at stake and for concealing the theft. But prosecutors will seek a reduced sentence because of her acceptance of responsibility. Tantico’s sentencing is set for Aug. 15.
The statement from Country Doctor’s board of directors added, “An exhaustive review of CDCHC financial procedures identified vulnerabilities which we have since addressed. We have completely restructured CDCHC’s Finance Department and instituted vital controls to ensure this can’t happen in the future. This extensive overhaul, including improvements to our procedures, training, and reporting, has put our Finance Department in a strong position, as was recognized by a recent federal Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA) financial review.”
Katoya Palmer, Chief Operations Officer for Community Passageways, also sent a statement in response to Tantico's guilty plea.
Palmer said, "We are one of multiple victims impacted and we're glad to see the case come to a much-awaited resolution. At Community Passageways we believe our mission is existentially important. Our team works daily to make our community safer and deliver lifesaving services to adults and youth throughout the Puget Sound, diverting them from our criminal legal system and ensuring they have the support they need to thrive."
She added, "Over the last two years we've been expanding significantly both in scope of work, staffing, and the programs we offer. Setting up strong financial controls is one of our most important challenges and a solemn duty to both private and public funders. To that end, we've completed a third-party review of our financial systems. They will also provide the highest possible level of scrutiny to all expenses within the organization and fill the role of CFO as a credible external entity in partnership with an accounting firm. Our commitment to our donors and community is that we won't rest until Community Passageways is a model for financial accountability and integrity."