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CLEAN: Donations, grants not in jeopardy

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Regina O'Brien, a member of the CLEAN board of directors, addresses the media during a press conference Monday morning. Rich Cooley/Daily

Probe continues into former director's use of agency credit card

By Alex Bridges -- abridges@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- Donations and grants to CLEAN Inc. are not in jeopardy, an official with the nonprofit said Monday, as an investigation continued into allegations that a former executive director made charges on an agency credit card before his firing.

CLEAN lost more than $2,700, which prompted the agency to seek criminal charges against Niles U. Comer, according to Regina O'Brien, a member of its board of directors and executive director of the Youth Development Center. Comer had worked for CLEAN less than two months when staff members discovered questionable charges on the corporate credit card, O'Brien said at a press conference Monday.

"We were dismayed," O'Brien said. "We were happy at the time that we had controls in place. We had swift-thinking staff members who were able to limit the liability to the organization.

"You know if somebody wants to steal from you they're going to work hard to find a way to do it, so the goal of the organization is to have proper controls in place to limit any wrongdoing and to quickly move to stem the wrongdoing, and they did a great job," O'Brien said. "But the board was concerned and dismayed that anybody would do this to a nonprofit."

The board may consult with law enforcement about any steps that may improve their hiring process, according to O'Brien who said they "did the right thing" when vetting Comer.

Asked about Comer's performance, O'Brien noted he only worked at the agency for six weeks.

"I think he was energetic, making some phone calls to people in the community to try to get acclimated," O'Brien said. "It's really too early. I think he was really working hard to get acclimated but then he kinda got sidetracked."

Comer's firing came after he had paid for a rental vehicle, which city police claim he did not return. Authorities found the rented Dodge Avenger in Manhattan but have not located Comer, police said last week. Police obtained a warrant for Comer's arrest on a charge of failing to return a rental car. The matter of whether Comer embezzled money from the agency remains under investigation by Winchester police and the Frederick County Sheriff's Office.

CLEAN's board of directors hired Comer on May 23 after a background and references check, O'Brien said. He worked with outgoing Executive Director Kat Bronson through June 4 and took over the position two days later. A staff member on July 5 reviewed credit card statements for June and "noticed irregularities in unauthorized expenditures by Mr. Comer," which included a hotel stay, groceries and gas totaling $1,003, O'Brien said. Staff members showed O'Brien this information, and she expressed her concerns to board member Frederick Gang.

Gang told the CLEAN executive committee on July 7 he would put Comer on administrative leave without pay. Gang and O'Brien told Comer on July 8 he was on administrative leave without pay and asked that he return his keys and the corporate credit card. On July 8, staff members canceled the card and changed the locks.

The committee voted July 13 to end Comer's employment and gave him notice by phone and letter. Comer's last paycheck for wages through July 8 was dated July 14. Staff members in early August found that, though they canceled the card July 8, Comer had used it in June to rent a car from Enterprise at a preauthorized cost of $1,774. The charge did not go through until July 22, bringing the total spent on the card to $2,777.

The committee voted Aug. 9 to press criminal charges against Comer after Gang sought advice from fellow board member Charles Stansfield, formerly with the Frederick County commonwealth's attorney's office. The board of directors approved the motion Aug. 10.
O'Brien and staff members met with authorities Sept. 13 to provide information for the investigation.

"CLEAN would like to cooperate with law enforcement officials to see a resolution here," O'Brien said. "Again we would like to see all monies spent that we get restitution for those and after that we'd like to move forward and continue to do with the great work we do for the area's kids."

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