Former nonprofit CEO Bill Davis pleaded guilty Thursday to 16 counts of theft and fraud for misspending hundreds of thousands of dollars intended to help low-income people.
Davis, the former head of Community Action of Minneapolis, had been set to face trial next week on federal charges of spending thousands of dollars in taxpayer money on lavish trips, cars and other personal items.
The government made no plea agreement with Davis, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Kimberly Svendsen. He will remain free until he is sentenced at a later date.
In U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, Judge Patrick Schiltz asked defense attorney Susan Gaertner to walk Davis through the allegations.
Davis admitted that he had attended a wedding with Community Action funds, paying for a hotel and meals and other expenditures.
"Did you also use the Community Action credit card for a trip to Bahamas in January ?" Gaertner asked.
Davis said yes.
Davis said that he took his fiancée, Patricia Banks, on the trip, which purportedly was connected with a Ben & Jerry's ice cream shop run by Community Action, even though the shop had closed in 2010. When questioned about the trip by the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS), Davis said that he replied that he was required to go, when actually he had arranged to be invited.
He also admitted buying a car for personal use with Community Action funds and seeking authorization from his board after the fact.
Community Action of Minneapolis was a nonprofit intended to provide energy and heating assistance and other services to low-income residents. Davis had run the organization for more than two decades.
"Improving people's lives was the mission of Community Action of Minneapolis," said U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger. "Instead, Bill Davis stole from those in need to line his own pockets. The evidence of fraud was overwhelming, and the defendant's guilty plea to all of the charges against him is a just result."
'He is very sorry'
Davis was charged after a DHS audit found that the nonprofit organization had misspent at least $800,000 between 2011 and 2013 for a car loan for Davis, travel, golf and other unauthorized expenses.
After the audit was first reported by the Star Tribune, the state raided the organization's offices, confiscated documents and then shut it down.
Davis was suspended, and several high-profile DFLers resigned from the board, including U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, state Sen. Jeff Hayden and several Minneapolis City Council members.
Now, Gaertner said, Davis decided he should take responsibility for "mistakes he made."
"He has done so with a heavy heart," Gaertner said. "He is very sorry for the conduct that you heard about in the courtroom today."
Davis' son, Jordan Davis, also faces federal charges of accepting $140,000 in payments over four years for work at the Ben & Jerry's shop that the U.S. attorney's office said he did not perform. Jordan Davis was a Minneapolis police officer; he pleaded not guilty. His trial is expected to begin Monday.
In court on Thursday, Bill Davis admitted arranging for the nonprofit to pay his son a "consultant's fee."
"Did you do so with the intent to enrich your son?" Gaertner asked. "Yes," Davis replied. He admitted that he arranged for his son to continue to be paid after he went back to school to become a police officer.
Asked repeatedly by prosecutor Svendsen and Judge Schiltz if he conspired with his son to continue the payments, Davis said it was his idea.
Asked after the hearing if Davis was trying to protect his son, Gaertner said that it has been difficult for Davis to talk about his son's conduct.
"[Davis] is the former CEO of [Community Action of Minneapolis]. He was active in politics. But more than anything, he is a father," she said.
Fred Bruno, Jordan Davis' attorney, was in the courtroom for Bill Davis' plea. After the hearing, Bruno said that nothing has changed for Jordan Davis' case.
"If anything, we think the case had gotten quite a bit better for Jordan," Bruno said.
Feds: 'Personal piggy bank'
In a recent court filing, the U.S. attorney's office alleged that Bill Davis treated the "agency's bank account as his personal piggy bank." Between 2009 and 2014, Davis racked up an average of $4,000 to $6,000 per month on the organization's credit card.
He paid for vacations for himself "and five different girlfriends to locations like Las Vegas, Niagara Falls, the Bahamas, Phoenix and Key West," court documents said.
His sentencing is not expected to take place for several months. Each of the counts carries a maximum prison time of between 10 to 20 years.
Schiltz said during the hearing that he hasn't done the math but that Davis could be facing "well over 100 years" in prison time.
Gaertner, meanwhile, said her goal would be to show that Davis is remorseful. "My goal at sentencing is to make clear to the judge that these acts of using some [Community Action] funds for personal expenses do not define Bill Davis, that he had a long career, that his passion was serving low-income families and that he deeply regrets the choices he made that you heard about in the courtroom today," Gaertner said.
Trial for son
Jordan Davis is facing trial on six theft and fraud charges. The U.S. attorney's office alleges that Bill Davis ordered that Jordan Davis be paid more than $140,000 from a "slush fund" that should have gone toward heating and energy assistance.
Jordan Davis was allegedly paid as manager of the Ben & Jerry's even after he quit the job and became a police officer in 2008.
Officials say that when Jordan Davis was confronted by law enforcement agents last summer, he said that he served as a "consultant" for the Ben & Jerry's while he was a police officer. He said he would bring supplies to the store, get supplies from Costco and order from ice-cream suppliers.
But the government says in court records that the evidence would show that Jordan Davis' statements were false and that "for approximately four years, in exchange for continuing to receive his full paycheck from the Ben & Jerry's, Jordan Davis did nothing."