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Former Frederick Douglass leader must repay money stolen for gambling addiction

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    Sonya Harper Williams appears in Lucas County Common Pleas Court for her sentencing Monday, March 5, in Toledo. The former executive director of the Frederick Douglass Community Center was sentenced for grand theft stealing from the organization.

    The Blade/Dave Zapotosky
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    Sonya Harper Williams, with attorney Rick Kerger, sits prior to her sentencing in Lucas County Common Pleas Court Monday, March 5, in Toledo.

    The Blade/Dave Zapotosky
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The former executive director of the Frederick Douglass Community Association was ordered Monday to repay $27,000 that she stole from the organization to support her gambling addiction.

Sonya Harper Williams, 55, now of Phoenix, pleaded guilty Oct. 30 to grand theft in Lucas County Common Pleas Court.

Judge Ian English placed her on community control for four years and ordered her to pay restitution, perform 150 hours of community service, and continue attending Gamblers Anonymous meetings.

Judge English told Williams he spent considerable time at the Indiana Avenue center as a child and sought assistance there in filling out financial aid forms for college. He was the first in his family to go to college, he said, and the Frederick Douglass center offered him access to people with college degrees.

“My problem isn't that you stole from a nonprofit organization,” Judge English said. “My problem is that you gambled away dollars that could have cost somebody like me their future.”

Officials from the center told the court how the center was hurt by Williams' theft and how it continues to struggle to rebuild itself.

Reggie Williams, president of the Frederick Douglass board, said he and other board members became close to Williams and were crushed after learning of the theft.

“We loved her. She was like our sister,” he said. “It definitely hurt.”

Once news of the stolen funds hit the newspaper, he said, the center lost a $60,000 contract it was about to sign with Toledo Public Schools for an after-school suspension program. Before long, the center lost tenants and its reputation too.

The center still is repaying unpaid taxes to the Internal Revenue Service, Mr. Williams said.

“It's been a tough struggle — four years to dedicate and sacrifice my time just being the face of the center, bringing hope and living up to the mission statement of the center,” he said.

“We want restitution. We need it. It's hard to make ends meet,” he added.

Chief Executive Officer Richard Langford told the court that nonprofits such as “the Doug,” as many call it, rely on grants, yet the center has been “red-flagged from receiving grants.” It has been fortunate to have loyal volunteers to keep programming going, he said.

“It's a struggle,” Mr. Langford said. “So whatever we can get back, anything to us right now, is a bonus, a plus to the children and families where we're trying to make an impact.”

Defense attorney Rick Kerger told the court Williams “was an addict — not to drugs, not to alcohol, but to gambling and it occurred late in her life. She hadn't been in a casino until she was in her 30s, but when it hit, it hit hard.”

He said there were “lax financial controls” at the center when she became its executive director.

“She got in a position where she wanted to gamble, needed money, and used the center's card to do that,” Mr. Kerger said.

He said Williams, who now works as a child abuse investigator in Arizona, was recently divorced from the Rev. Lee Williams, senior pastor at Search-lite Community Church in Maumee.

She apologized.

“It was never my intent to defraud or misuse or hurt the center or any of the people that it serves,” Williams said. “It was my effort every day, 100 percent, to do my best as an administrator and as the [executive director] of the center. This was a separate issue that was a personal issue that overwhelmed me and … I regret that with every fiber of my being.”

Judge English said the center was “a safe haven” for him and other children who grew up in the neighborhood.

“Its reputation is tarnished of course because of its scandal,” Judge English said. “And if it does not survive, the impact on the African-American community will be devastating.”

Prosecutors alleged Williams stole close to $54,000 between July 1, 2013, and June 30, 2014, but Mr. Kerger had argued the amount was far less. The two sides agreed Monday on the final restitution amount.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at jfeehan@theblade.com or 419-213-2134.

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