The couple is accused in court records of taking in more than $277,000 in proceeds from three raffles it illegally held in Thurston County to raise money for autism research between May, 2010 and March, 2012. Out of those proceeds, only $4,931 was donated to an autism charity, court papers state. Amy Hunter, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Gambling Commission, said Wednesday that any licensed raffle for charity in Washington must basically donate all of its proceeds, minus operating expenses, to the charity it purports to assist.
"All of the money should be going back," she said.
Joseph Searles, 63, and his wife Rena, 61, are each charged in Thurston County Superior Court with three counts of first-degree theft, three counts of first-degree conspiracy to commit theft, and three counts of running an unlicensed raffle. Their arraignments are scheduled for Tuesday, February 19.
The phone number at the Searles' business, Associated Services of Washington, Inc., located on Martin Way, had been disconnected as of Wednesday. The Searles' business has the same acronym - ASW - as a legitimate autism organization, the Autism Society of Washington.
The Washington State Gambling Commission began an investigation of the Searles in January of 2012, after receiving a report from the Washington Attorney General's Office.
According to court papers:
The investigation revealed that the Searles were operating Associated Services of Washington as a for-profit company. A raffle cannot be run by a for-profit company. In 2010, the Searles operated a raffle for the Autism Society of Washington. The raffle deposited $26,000 in proceeds, but paid out only $1,070 to the charity. The Searles' company did not obtain a license from the gambling commission for its raffle, which is prohibited under Washington law. Any raffle in Washington that raises more than $5,000 must obtain a license under state law.
"The Autism Society of Washington's board of directors became aware of the regulations and license requirement and promptly disassociated their relationship with Associated Services of Washington," court papers state. There is no evidence the Autism Society of Washington had anything to do with the Searles alleged fraud, prosecutors said.
Officials at the Autism Society of Washington could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
The investigation then revealed that the Searles had started using a second for-profit company and in late 2011, held a second raffle for autism charities run out of Thurston County. The Searles hired employees to conduct raffle sales at Washington state-run liquor stores. Some of the employees reported that the Searles told them to say they were volunteers to avoid scrutiny by authorities. This raffle raised about $209,000, but the donations to autism charities totaled only $3,861.
The third raffle investigated by the gambling commission occurred in late 2011 and early 2012. This raffle solicited sales throughout Thurston County, using legitimate autism charity logos, "without permission of those charities." This raffle raised $42,000, but investigators with the gambling commission could find no donations to any autism charities.
A September newspaper article in The Oregonian, stated that an organization run by Joseph Searles called Autism Awareness United was raising money in Oregon, but was under investigation by the Oregon Department of Justice, because, according to the article, "it appeared to have broken state laws."
Jeff Manning, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Justice, said Wednesday that he cannot comment on his office's investigation because it is ongoing.
A phone call to the Searles' attorney, James Jameson, was unreturned Wednesday.
Jeremy Pawloski: 360-754-5445 email@example.com