Nonprofit CFO Accused of 'Simply Astonishing' Fraud

William Smith allegedly embezzled almost $40M from Detroit Riverfront Conservancy
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 6, 2024 9:06 AM CDT
Nonprofit CFO Accused of 'Simply Astonishing' Fraud
William Smith addresses a large crowd before a ribbon-cutting ceremony marking the official opening of the Uniroyal Promenade along the Detroit Riverwalk last year.   (Katy Kildee/Detroit News via AP)

The former chief financial officer of a nonprofit tasked with improving Detroit's waterfront has been charged with a fraud that prosecutors say is "simply astonishing in scale." William Smith, who was fired as CFO of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy last week, is accused of stealing around $40 million from the nonprofit between late 2012 and March this year, which works out to almost $300,000 a month. He has been charged with bank fraud and wire fraud, the US Attorney's Office said in a news release.

  • A criminal complaint alleges that Smith, 51, "used the embezzled funds for his own personal gain and enrichment, spending the funds on airline tickets, hotels, limousines, household goods, lawn care, clothing, and jewelry," the Detroit Free Press reports.

  • The group gets its funding from the government and private donors. Prosecutors said Smith embezzled money in two ways: By using its funds "to pay for charges that he and his family accrued on an American Express account," and by diverting funds to a company he controlled called the Joseph Group. He allegedly altered bank statements to conceal the theft.
  • The New York Times reports that Smith controlled the nonprofit's finances so tightly that its accountant couldn't log into one of its bank accounts. He gave her bank statements on paper four times a year in the parking lot of a Honey Baked Ham outlet.
  • Prosecutors said the fraud amounted to 39% of the money the nonprofit reported spending. They said that when it started running out of cash last year, Smith forged documents to take out a $5 million line of credit, the Times reports.
  • The nonprofit has transformed Detroit's riverfront into a popular tourist attraction, the AP reports. Its 44-person board of directors includes business leaders and public officials. "We each feel a sense of responsibility to overcome this horrific act," the board said last week.
  • "The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy's mission is to transform one of our city's greatest assets, the riverfront, into a vibrant and safe space for all to gather and enjoy," said US Attorney Dawn Ison. "This defendant is alleged to have abused the trust the Conservancy placed in him and to have carried out a fraud that is simply astonishing in scale." The felony charges against Smith could send him to prison for decades.
(More Detroit stories.)

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