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Faith Equestrian Therapeutic Center staff takes stand against board
2019 audit reveals questionable spending by founder
Bonnie Rachel
Faith Equestrian Therapeutic Center founder Bonnie Rachael gives a donkey a hug at the facility June 14. She stepped down as the CEO of the facility in September but remained on its board of directors. - photo by Photo by Rick Lott

RINCON — Five of six staff members at Faith Equestrian Therapeutic Center (FETC), including its new executive director, are bucking the charitable nonprofit organization’s board of directors following a recent audit. 

Executive Director Fran Todd and four other employees are set to surrender their jobs Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. in protest of the board’s action in the wake of a Caines, Hodges & Company report that revealed shoddy recordkeeping and “misappropriation of funds” by former founder and executive director Bonnie Rachael.

With the exception of Chairperson Karen Signal, the board voted to close out the 2019 audit despite questions surrounding nearly $16,000 in expenditures by Rachael, including “inappropriate” checks she wrote to herself for two horse trailers and using $100 from a Special Olympics account to pay for care of her dog. Her expense reports, credit card use and a property transaction also gained scrutiny.

Signal turned the audit findings over to the Effingham County Sheriff’s Office on Monday for a possible investigation. She also intends to send them to the Charities Division of the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office.

Todd and her coworkers want FETC board members Patsy Zeigler, Michele Shuman, Tim Stevenson, Tom Keathley and Rachael to step down because they voted to close the audit despite evidence of poor documentation and possible wrongdoing. They are willing to rescind their resignations if they achieve their goal.

“We feel that continuing our association with Faith under these circumstances will hurt our own professional reputations by suggesting that we condone that behavior, which we certainly do not,” the employees said in a joint letter to Signal. 

Todd and the other FETC staffers accused Rachael of behavior that was “unethical, unfair and unprofessional.”

 “I am so devastated,” said Todd, who became FETC’s executive director Sept. 1 following Rachael’s retirement. “This has broken my heart because it is going to be the kids who are suffering if things don’t go as we hope they go.”

FETC offers equine-assisted therapeutic and education activities to help improve physical, behavioral, cognitive and emotional functioning in children and veterans with disabilities.

Todd said the audit for 2019 started shortly before she became executive director. It was completed in November.

“I was the one the auditor (Amy Futrell, CPA) was actually meeting with because Bonnie was not there very much, which was surprising to me. It was a little flag there,” Todd said.

Todd said the auditor shared with her that have been repeated problems with FETC audits for several years.

“The findings were repeat findings,” she said. “That’s what threw up the red flag for me but other things started coming to light.”

Todd was upset that the board voted to close out the audit during a Nov. 18 meeting.

“There are certain members who just wanted to let this go,” she said. “In fact, one board member (Keathley) even said that he would donate $10,000 (to the FETC general fund) with the stipulation that this never be brought up again. I couldn’t believe he said that but he did.”

Sandra Hendix, the board’s treasurer, resigned following the contentious meeting.

“That’s pretty telling,” Todd said.

According to meeting minutes, Keathley made the $10,000 donation but asked that the record not show that it was tied to Rachael. Neither Keathley nor Rachael responded to Herald efforts to get them to discuss the matter. 

“I’ve worked under boards and served on boards for the last thirty years and I have never in my life seen anything like it,” Todd said. “This last (FETC) board meeting was just unbelievable. The way they wanted to handle this — or not handle this — is kind of what did it for me.

“... We do not want to be governed by a dishonest board — with the exception of Karen, of course.”

In an email sent to board members Monday after the Herald left messages for Keathley and Rachael, Keathley notified Signal that she will be replaced as board chairman during a meeting today at 5:30 p.m. Signal, the third chairman in the past year, asked for but didn’t receive a written explanation from Rachael about the expenditures in question.

Keathley wrote, “The majority of members agree that the mission of Faith cannot effectively be achieved when the Board is divided in its focus and priorities. The majority of members do not believe we can find an effective resolution to these differences with the current Board membership.”

He added, “It is the intent of the majority of Board members, as a first order of business in our Board meeting Wednesday, to call for the removal of Karen Signal from the Board, It is our determination that her priorities and objectives do not align with the majority of the Board.

“The remaining Board members find this step to be unfortunate. Karen has been an important part of Faith for many years and we bear her no ill will as we take this step.”

Jackie Garmin, an FETC instructor certified by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH), regrets the acrimony that may result in her, Todd, PATH instructor Hallie Myers and barn worker McKenzee Williams surrendering their jobs.

“It’s very unfortunate that it has come to this,” Garmin said. “I am not happy about it. It’s not a witchhunt for Ms. Rachael. It’s just that I can’t be there if nothing is going to be done about what is happening.”

Garmin, who has assisted at FETC since 2010, admitted to having occasional conflicts with Rachael but was able to get past them. One centered on her not getting paid while working four days at the Special Olympics.

“I’ve just come to love her and work alongside that,” Garmin said. “Sometimes you put aside differences because I want to serve the kids. I love the horses and I love the people, and the community that we serve.”

Garmin said it is deplorable that FETC’s problems have become public knowledge.

“It wouldn’t have come to this if the board had just handled it and (Rachael) would do the right thing legally and morally,” she said. “It’s just unfortunate that she has chose to act this way. I’m trying to figure it out in my mind why she would even allow her staff to quit.

“She will use the story about how she is the founder, she gave her blood, sweat and tears, and this is her baby. and this is her idea. She will even use religious type of terminology, saying that the Lord gave her this vision.

“That is very true — I am sure — but to allow the whole thing to go sour because of pride ...”

According to the minutes from the Nov. 18 board meeting, Rachael denied intentional wrongdoing but admitted “mistakes” due to being busy and overworked.

“She will say she made a mistake but there is no, ‘I’m sorry. Please help me through this,’ “ Garmin said. “We would rally around her in a heartbeat if she would do that.”

Garmin is confused by the board’s apparent lack of concern about the audit’s findings.

“It’s in black and white,” she said. “It’s numbers. It’s money. I don’t know how you can get around it.

“She will say she didn’t know what she was doing but I don’t believe that for a second.”

Longtime FETC financial backer and volunteer Larry Fort doesn’t believe it, either. He used to be a board member but resigned a couple years ago following a dispute over a barn construction project.

“I personally believe that Bonnie has stacked the board with supporters as the board’s openings were filled by people she recommended,” he said. “Basically, that’s how I got on the board. Nobody even voted on me because she controlled the board entirely.” 

Signal, who took command of the board in August, agrees.

“(While the audit was in progress), I was accused of defaming (Rachael’s) character,” Signal said. “Bonnie was able to get the whole board on her side.”

Despite her impending ouster, Fort and Signal remain hopeful that the issues with Rachael and the board can be resolved so that FETC services won’t be interrupted by the loss of its employees.

“What we do is wonderful,” Fort said, “but this has got to be handled.”

Todd hates that her job is in jeopardy but remains steadfast in her stance.

 “You have to stand up for what’s right,” she said. “As my husband says, right is right and wrong don’t belong. If this would just go away, we would have a great place.”

Wednesday’s 5:30 p.m. board meeting will occur at 243 Appaloosa Way, Guyton.

Supporters of the staffers are set to gather at 5 p.m.