“You don't just pick up cash that belongs to your employer, pass it around, spend it as you see fit, and not document the spending.”
So writes a San Mateo County accountant in an email to investigators in the middle of the sad case of Barbara Bonilla, a case that ended last week with another black eye for the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office and a feeling that justice is not always found in our courtrooms.
Bonilla was the executive director of the Sheriff’s Activities League before resigning last year when federal agents joined Sheriff’s investigators for a trip down the rabbit hole that has been SAL finances through the years. On Sept. 15, she exited a Superior Court Review by accepting a no contest plea to one of seven felony counts — theft of more than $950. It’s a shockingly disappointing deal given the level of public swindle.
A treasure trove of emails unearthed through public records requests meticulously categorized by Half Moon Bay resident John Ullom reveals so many misappropriations right under the Sheriff’s nose that they are difficult to count. At one point, the program’s accountant is made aware of $232,084.51 missing from SAL coffers. At another, she literally exclaims that Bonilla couldn’t account for another $75,000 in donations.
As if misappropriating money from a program designed to help at-promise youth wasn’t upsetting enough, consider that Bonilla got away with it for years in plain sight of the best-known names in county law enforcement. The program was established when San Mateo County Supervisor Don Horsley was sheriff and he praised her as late as last year. Bonilla served as campaign manager for current Sheriff Carlos Bolanos in 2018, a period during which SAL funds went missing. The organization’s board of directors included District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe and other prominent leaders in the Sheriff’s Office.
How low did it go? The accounting suggests that Bonilla pocketed $5,980 in cash collected for selling Costco cheesecake at the 2019 Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Festival. Those who bought the dessert had every reason to believe they were helping kids in the county get a leg up, not lining the pockets of the program’s director.
Perhaps most unfortunate, the brazen theft from within the Sheriff’s Office has tarnished a program that is very important, particularly here on the coast where relations between the community and the region’s de facto police force has been strained in recent years by troubling police shootings and charges of racial profiling. There have been SAL chapters in La Honda, Pescadero and the area surrounding Half Moon Bay, and the program has typically served 3,500 San Mateo County kids between the ages of 5 and 18 each 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.
Given the nature of the theft and the level of public disappointment, the settlement agreement is galling. Bonilla will serve no jail time after her plea. Six felony charges were dropped and the remaining charge will be reduced to a misdemeanor after a year’s probation or the minute she pays $13,706.35 in restitution plus another $400 in fees. It doesn’t seem like much to pay for misappropriating thousands of dollars in public money meant for children, laughing at the goodwill of donors like the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and bringing shame on county law enforcement.
— Clay Lambert