A man accused of defrauding people who donated to a charity to organize trips for World War II veterans to visit Washington, D.C., has been bound over for trial.
After a preliminary hearing on Tuesday, 3rd District Judge Vernice Trease advanced the case of Paul W. McSweeney, 50, toward trial. His next court date is Aug. 20.
Prosecutor Neal Gunnarson said McSweeney raised funds for a 2007 trip to the nation's capital, but much of that money went to pay for revenue shortfalls from a different trip that took place the previous year. Gunnarson also contends McSweeney spent some of the approximately $90,000 that the state says was misappropriated for McSweeney's personal use.
McSweeney's charitable group, Our Unsung Heroes, arranged for 210 people to go to Washington in 2006. About half them were veterans who traveled, stayed and ate there for free; the rest were "escorts," or family members or friends accompanying the vets, who paid their own way.
However, defense attorney Guy Black portrayed the Mapleton resident as an honest man who tried to do his best, but simply could not generate enough donations to accomplish the goals he had set.
Black said McSweeney did help organize the successful 2006 trip and offered to sell an airplane he owned to help cover debts, which are not the actions of a man bent on stealing from others.
"I don't think he committed fraud in this case," Black said. "The only thing he may be guilty of is not being able to raise enough funds."
But Gunnarson said McSweeney recklessly omitted telling the other members of a committee that oversaw the charity about the level of debt from the first trip. Common sense would dictate that no one would pay a penny for a new trip if they knew their money was actually paying bills for an excursion already taken by others the previous year, Gunnarson said.
"These people in good faith gave their hard-earned money for a very sentimental reason," Gunnarson said. "They were promised they would get value for their money."
McSweeney is charged with six counts of communications fraud and one count of a pattern of unlawful activity, all second-degree felonies.
Judy Lemons, a member of the charity's committee, testified she believed that everything was in order and that the 2007 trip would proceed.
However, at the last minute, the people who had signed up for the second Washington trip had to be notified that it was all off because it became obvious that the necessary funding was not there. She said she had been told earlier not to worry about money, but focus on arranging ceremonies, which is her forte.
Lemons wept when she read an e-mail that McSweeney had sent that suggested he planned to kill himself after he went missing for a while in May 2007. Under questioning, she also said she did not believe McSweeney intended to defraud anyone.
Steve Cooley, an auditor with the Utah Division of Consumer Protection, met with McSweeney on May 18, 2007, in the presence of another state worker and asked for details about the finances of the Unsung Heroes.
Cooley said the charity was red-flagged because the state received reports of $180,000 in donations, but only $1,000 in expenses, which he said was "very unusual," especially when a newspaper article discussed a fundraiser that would have cost some money to put on.
He also had read about the cancellation of the 2007 trip.
Cooley said the breakdown of expenses from the 2006 trip and the money for the 2007 trip simply did not compute.
"It became apparent these amounts didn't seem to make sense," Cooley said.
Cooley said McSweeney told him that he was soliciting funds and over time he expected to raise enough money to pay the old debts, finance a 2007 trip and even pay for future Washington excursions. Cooley said that McSweeney was confident that with "enough exposure and contacts" the necessary money could be found.Under questioning, Cooley said McSweeney did not appear remorseful that the May 2007 trip was cancelled.
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