News
September 18, 2020
link to facebook link to twitter

Embezzlement When it rains – it pours!

By: Cassandra May Albaugh
July 31, 2020

The Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety might be feeling this way! If it’s not one thing, it’s another. They just settled a federal civil rights claim concerning five officers who allegedly stole money and pot during traffic stops on Highway 101. They have another civil rights lawsuit still pending in the death of Branch Wroth. He was a Forestville man who died in 2017, when Rohnert Park officers held him face down in a motel room. A federal jury made a four-million-dollar award to the family last year, but the verdict was overturned and a new trial ordered. 

Then the death of George Floyd happened, and now, use of force policies are in the spotlight. At least two protests have been held in front of the Department of Public Safety’s building so far. They’ve not only called for a review of use of force, but also the implementation of a civilian oversight committee and more transparency in police actions and data.

Now this! One of their own has been arrested on suspicion of embezzling money from the Rohnert Park Public Safety Officer’s Association. David Sittig-Wattson, a resident of Rohnert Park, turned himself in Mon., July 27, according to a Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office press release. Wattson was the treasurer of this nonprofit association which is a union that represents police and firefighters as well as dispatchers and other staff at the Department of Public Safety. After serving for five years, when board terms expired last year, an audit of union finances was undertaken and discovered suspicious financial activities from previous years.

When contacted, Misti Wood, Community Engagement Liaison, said there wasn’t much more they could share than what was in the press release. The case is with the district attorney’s office. She did confirm that the original complaint was filed in February of this year and originated with the Officer’s Association. They moved as fast as they could on the investigation given the restraints of COVID-19 and the Shelter-in-Place orders. She also confirmed that no court date has yet been set. After turning himself in, Wattson was released on $5,000 bail. No specifics of how much money was potentially taken have been released to date.

I served on a Rohnert Park nonprofit in 2017. There too, we found that a trusted treasurer was embezzling the funds. The sense of violation and anger was present, especially since she wiped us out and put our annual project in support of graduating seniors in jeopardy. The community rallied to our support, and we were able to continue with our project. But we learned a hard lesson about trust, one that many nonprofits still need to learn. Trust but verify. Make sure you have sufficient checks and balances in place so that this doesn’t happen to you. In that case, the treasurer pled guilty to the one felony count and restitution was made as part of her sentencing plea bargaining. 

Wattson has also been charged with one felony count, but it remains to be seen if he pleads guilty or not guilty to the charge. That plea is likely sometime this week. One thing struck me as odd in comparing the two cases. Our treasurer had a $380,000 bail placed on her. Wattson only had a $5,000 bail requirement. This wide variance in bail amount certainly is puzzling. This may support the need for more transparency in our judicial system as being asked for during the current protests are valid.