Jim Peterson, former president of HomesNOW!, at SafeHaven on May 11. // Photo by Zack Jimenez
By Ella Banken
*This article was updated on Thursday, Nov. 7, at 9:36 a.m.
On Saturday, Nov. 2, HomesNOW! board member Doug Gustafson announced the end of a month-long investigation of former board members in a Facebook post.
Jim Peterson, former HomesNOW! president and co-founder, was arrested Friday, Nov. 1, and booked into Whatcom County Jail on suspicion of first-degree theft. Peterson was released on bail of $10,000 Monday, Nov. 4.
The total conservative estimate is around $75,000 in funds embezzled from the nonprofit organization by Peterson for personal use, according to Lieutenant Claudia Murphy of the Bellingham Police Department. Gustafson’s original estimate was $8,000.
“The next phase is the trial, but what we’re doing as an organization is we’re looking to focus on the future,” Gustafson said.
The investigation showed that purchases totaling nearly $22,000 were allegedly made by Peterson at fast food restaurants, a marijuanna dispensary, an alcohol and tobacco store, two different area casinos and several coffee shops, according to Murphy.
Over $17,000 was spent at Fred Meyer on fuel and other non business-related purchases, Murphy said. Approximately $69,000 was withdrawn in cash at ATMs for apparent personal use.
According to Murphy, investigators reviewed surveillance footage at some locations that confirmed Peterson to be the one making the transactions.
The police investigation of the misappropriation of funds began after Gustafson reported misconduct of former board members at the end of September, Gustafson previously told The Western Front.
The organization was founded over two years ago by Peterson and Gustafson, according to HomesNOW!’s website. Unity Village is the third temporary encampment permitted by the city that HomesNOW! organized in less than a year.
“Between the months of May to September, HomesNOW! took in roughly four times the amount of money than it did in the previous two years combined,” Gustafson wrote in the Facebook post.
HomesNOW! conducted a fundraising drive in order to construct tiny homes for Unity Village, Gustafson said.
“We took in a lot of money in a short period of time, so that’s why the accounting kind of got away from us,” Gustafson said.
According to Gustafson, HomesNOW! is funded solely by donations, and all board positions are unpaid.
HomesNOW! is working to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen again, Gustafson said.
“We’re basically having to redo everything from scratch,” Gustafson said. “We’re actively trying to repair everything.”
In Gustafson’s Facebook post, he outlined a few new policies that the organization will be implementing, which include procedures for handling financials and sexual misconduct. They are continuing to restructure old and new policies, which will be presented on their website and Facebook page, Gustafson said.
Some of the organization’s management structure may still change, according to treasurer Carol Winikoff. HomesNOW! board members are working with volunteers to “learn the ropes”, according to Winikoff.
“We’re not positive yet if I’m going to stay as treasurer, but if I do I am going to get some actual training,” Winikoff said. “I never had any formal training.”
While the investigation was going on, HomesNOW! was unable to admit any new residents to Unity Village, which left five tiny houses sitting empty, Gustafson said. Now that the investigation is completed, they are jumping into action and hope to have the houses filled by next week.
“I’m just glad that it’s over so we can move on,” Gustafson said.
HomesNOW! completed interviews of potential residents and they are waiting on background checks and approval from the city, Gustafson said. Then, the current residents of Unity Village get the final say in who is admitted into their community.