Tuesday, November 22, 2022

FBI Takes on Fair Association Embezzlement Investigation

Posted By on Tue, Nov 22, 2022 at 8:03 AM

The investigation and possible prosecution of a 47-year-old woman accused of embezzling from the Humboldt County Fair Association and a Eureka nonprofit are being taken over by federal agencies, according to Ferndale Police Chief Ron Sligh.

Nina Tafarella, 47, was arrested Nov. 15 by Ferndale police at Bear River Casino on suspicion of embezzling more than $20,000 from a Eureka nonprofit that provides youth enrichment programs and an untold sum from the fair association. But Sligh said that after conferring with the FBI, the Humboldt County District Attorney's Office and Eureka police, "we decided the FBI will take the lead on it and prosecute federally."

Sligh said the decision was made because the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office of Northern California have more experience with financial crimes.

Tafarella, who has not been charged with a crime stemming from her arrest, was released from jail on her own recognizance Nov. 18, according to Humboldt County Sheriff's Office online records.

The case spawned out of Eureka, where, according to EPD spokesperson Brittany Powell, police believe Tafarella embezzled approximately $23,000 from a nonprofit that provides youth arts programs. Powell said the embezzlement is believed to have taken place over the course of about a year beginning in February of 2021 through Tafarella's capacity as a bookkeeper for the nonprofit. EPD had been investigating the case since late May, Powell said, and obtained a warrant for Tafarella's arrest Nov. 1.

Sligh said he first became aware of EPD's case around Nov. 10 when contacted by Humboldt County Fair Association General Manager Rich Silacci, who reached out after learning of the warrant for Tafarella, who'd also been serving as the association's bookkeeper since February of 2021. Silacci reported that Tafarella worked at the association and had access to its finances. Sligh said the fair association began an audit of its books, noticed discrepancies and what he believes is evidence Tafarella embezzled from it, too.

Officials have declined to say how much they believe was taken from the fair association, which has long struggled to gain a complete, accurate picture of its finances and has not had an external audit done since 2011.

In October of 2021, fair administrator Katherine Ziemer, wrote the board of directors on the subject of the fair's finances, saying she understood and shared directors' frustration on the subject. In the letter, Ziemer notes the association had hired a "very capable bookkeeper" who was working to get up to speed on the "fair-specific knowledge" needed to make sense of the organization's finances, which have been described as "extremely complex, with a 12-page listing of sub accounts."

Tafarella's hire also came at a point when the fair association was struggling financially and teetering on the edge of insolvency amid the pandemic, kept afloat by an influx of hundreds of thousands of dollars in COVID relief funds and a county grant.

As to the ongoing investigation, Sligh said he appreciates the assistance of the FBI, the DA's Office and EPD. Moving forward, Sligh said Ferndale police will assist if asked but the federal agencies will take the lead of both Eureka and Ferndale's investigations.
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Thadeus Greenson

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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