State prosecutors are nearing a decision on whether to prosecute the former director of the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Activities League in the wake of an investigation that uncovered repeated financial improprieties in a program founded and administered by the Sheriff’s Office.
Barbara Bonilla was the longtime director of the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Activities League. She has served as Sheriff Carlos Bolanos’ campaign manager and was a past president of the National Police Athletic League board of directors. She was known for her fundraising acumen and county connections. But for much of 2020, the California Department of Justice in conjunction with the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office was compiling evidence suggesting she converted thousands of dollars from the SAL to her personal accounts.
Bonilla was suspended from her duties in February and resigned her position in May. She has not been charged with a crime. Sources with knowledge of the investigation say it has concluded and that the state Attorney General’s Office is currently considering charges. Bonilla did not immediately return an email seeking comment.
The evidence against Bonilla is outlined in dozens of emails sent earlier this year between state and local investigators and SAL accountant Gigi Mangini. The emails, obtained through a California Public Records Act request, were forwarded to the Review. They contain receipts and other information that together point to years of lax accounting within a program that Mangini said was never audited despite its six-figure revenues and importance to the community.
Among the points of inquiry:
** SAL employees say the organization’s booth at the 2019 Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Festival collected $5,980 from the sale of cheesecake that deputy Shawn Chase purchased ahead of time from a local Costco for just under $1,000. The employees say they remember turning the cash over to Bonilla, but accountants could find no record of a deposit. Another $3,000 was unaccounted for after a 2019 San Bruno event called “Day in the Park.”
** Investigators also focused on a 2018 trip to Orlando, Fla. SAL paid for 25 people to travel to the National Police Athletic League Peer Mentoring Summit. Most of the attendees were juveniles who were chaperoned by program officials and San Mateo County Sheriff’s employees. Emails suggest Bonilla used SAL money to pay for her daughter to attend the trip, even staying an extra day at program expense.
In all, tens of thousands of dollars appear to be unaccounted for, most of it gathered from government and foundation grants as well as small private donations. The Half Moon Bay Lion’s Club and several Coastside businesses were among the donors in that period.
Along the way, investigators gathered information into the way others handled the program’s money as well, but San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said he understood Bonilla was the sole focus of the investigation. Wagstaffe is a member of the SAL board of directors and, because of that affiliation, recused himself from the investigation.
While Wagstaffe said he could not speak to particulars of the investigation, he acknowledged that program money was stolen.
“I think the facts that have been established do show there was some level of misappropriation,” he said on Friday, one day after the SAL board was apprised of the status of the investigation.
The program is important to Coastside youth. There are SAL chapters in La Honda, Pescadero and the Coastside, and the program serves 3,500 San Mateo County kids between the ages of 5 and 18 in a typical year. Three-fourths of the children who benefit from everything from soccer games and reading materials to trips to peer conferences are of Latino heritage, according to the organization’s website.
The program has been hampered by the upheaval in management as well as COVID-19 restrictions, which Wagstaffe says has significantly curtailed fundraising options this year.
The district attorney says the board — which includes Undersheriff Mark Robbins, Sheriff’s Capt. Christina Corpus, San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault and former Half Moon Bay City Manager Marcia Raines — had no culpability for any financial wrongdoing.
“I think it’s more about how do we get through this,” he said, adding the program in the midst of a restructuring.