Laradon Hall: Do leaders of troubled charity need an ethics course?

Laradon Hall, a nonprofit in north Denver that operates an alternative school and other programs for people with developmental disabilities, has done a lot of good works over the past sixty years. But lately the place has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, including questionable expenditures of donors' money -- just a few months after another dubious decision involving a huge contribution from a man planning his own death.

A former Laradon accountant recently hepped 7News investigator John Ferrugia to some atypical expenses of the organization, leading to an on-air grilling of executive director Frank Lucero. Ferrugia reported that Lucero had spent between $200,000 and $300,000 to renovate executive offices while other school facilities used by folks in wheelchairs lacked heat and sometimes flooded. Lucero conceded that spending $2,200 on a dinner for board members and thousands more for golf tournaments and Bronco season tickets, while at the same time urging staff to cut back on supplies such as paper, probably wasn't a smart idea.

"Were there errors? Yes, there were," Lucero told Ferrugia. "Can I eat them? Absolutely."

It would probably be easier to have confidence in Lucero's digestion of his sins if they didn't come on the heels of some other strange financial dealings at Laradon. Back in 2008 Lucero's predecessor, acting director Annie Green, received an unusual package from an enigmatic loner named John Beech, a man who'd expressed an interest in donating to Laradon. Written in block letters on the outside were the words WAIT UNTILL YOU HEAR FROM CORONER.

Green opened the package anyway. Inside was the original of a will signed by Beech, leaving his estate to Laradon; a check made out to Laradon for $100,000 that couldn't be cashed for another two weeks; and keys to his house and instructions on how to dispose of his personal possessions.

Green put the check in a safe. She would later testify that she tried to contact Beech to thank him, but didn't follow up when he didn't return her phone messages.

As detailed in my feature about the case, "The Giveway," Beech committed an elaborately planned suicide a few days later. Members of his family went to court, contending that Green should have notified police or at least initiated a welfare check after receiving such a suspicious bequest. But Jefferson County Probate Judge Stephen Munsinger ruled that Beech's money could go to Laradon; while there are laws on the books that prevent a beneficiary from murdering a person and collecting his estate, the law doesn't cover a beneficiary who receives advance notice of suicide and then fails to contact the authorities.

Green insisted that she had no idea of Beech's intentions, and reader response to our story was passionately divided. But Laradon didn't come off looking too good, even to its defenders -- and the organization's latest financial misadventures don't make that picture any prettier.

More from our Colorado Crimes archive: "Cheryl Fugett soaks the system -- by allegedly using charity money on her hot tub."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast