Man sentenced for organizing phony raffles in Olympia to benefit autism; pocketed cash

Staff writerSeptember 19, 2013 

A man who ran unlicensed raffles in Olympia and pocketed about 98 percent of the $277,000 in proceeds will spend 90 days on electronic home monitoring after pleading guilty to two felonies Thursday.

Three raffles that Joseph Searles organized in Olympia between 2010 and 2012 purported to raise money for autism research on behalf of the Autism Society of Washington, according to court papers.

But out of more than $277,000 in proceeds from these raffles, only $4,931 was donated to an autism charity, court papers state.

Searles, 64, pleaded guilty Thursday to one count each of first-degree theft and operating a raffle without a license before Thurston County Superior Court Judge Carol Murphy.

Any licensed raffle in Washington must basically donate all of its proceeds, minus operating expenses, to the charity it purports to assist, according to Amy Hunter, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Gambling Commission.

 

As part of an agreed recommendation stemming from the plea deal Searles reached with prosecutors, Murphy sentenced Searles to 90 days in jail, which will be served on electronic home monitoring.

He also must pay $5,000 in restitution to the Autism Society of Washington. Prosecutor Joe Wheeler said that because Searles apparently no longer has any assets and his house is in foreclosure, his office agreed to a restitution sum that the autism charity can realistically recoup.

Searles' guilty plea was an Alford plea, a type of plea in which a defendant does not admit guilt, but concedes a jury would have likely found him guilty had the case gone to trial. An Alford plea carries the same penalties as a guilty plea and counts as a conviction in the eyes of the court.

Searles does not believe he committed theft, according to his statement on his guilty plea form. Searles' attorney, Saxon Rodgers, told Murphy in court that "the truth is, a lot of it depends on how you articulate the criminal definition of theft."

Murphy told Searles that his Alford plea should not give him the mistaken impression that he did not engage in criminal activity.

"These are crimes that hurt people and hurt our community," Murphy said. "They impact the ability of legitimate charities to raise money. It is criminal behavior, so I find no excuse to this kind of behavior and I'm very concerned about the lack of taking responsibility for that behavior."

The Thurston County Prosecuting Attorney's Office also dismissed criminal charges against Searles' wife, Rena, as part of the plea deal. She also was charged with theft and other crimes related to the illegal raffles.

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 their business, Associated Services of Washington, as a for-profit company. The acronym of Searles business, ASW, was identical to a legitimate autism charity - The Autism Society of Washington.

A raffle cannot be run by a for-profit company. In 2010, the Searles operated a raffle for the Autism Society of Washington, depositing $26,000 in proceeds, but paying only $1,070 to the charity. The Searles also did not obtain a license from the gambling commission for the raffle, which is against the 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.

The investigation subsequently uncovered the two other raffles the Searles operated. Those raffles made about $251,000 in proceeds, but donated only $3,861 to autism charities.

A September, 2012 newspaper article in The Oregonian states that an organization run by 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."

In 2011, Searles was the subject of a court order in Washington barring him from acting as a mortgage broker because he violated the Mortgage Broker Practices Act.

In February, the Washington Attorney General's Office issued a consent decree in King County, ordering Searles and his wife to permanently cease and desist from engaging in solicitation activities on behalf of any charities, or from "forming any charitable organization in Washington." If they disobey that consent order, they must pay a $50,000 penalty.

An official from the Autism Society of Washington said Thursday the organization was preparing a statement, but The Olympian had not received it as of 4:30 p.m. Thursday.

 

 

Jeremy Pawloski: 360-754-5445 jpawloski@theolympian.com

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