Office manager for Tacoma doctors accused of taking $1 million-plus faces judgment

Eight Tacoma-area doctors have won a lawsuit against a longtime office manager they accused of taking more than $1 million.

In the civil lawsuit, Tacoma Orthopaedic Surgeons Inc. said Suzanne Gale Foss, 63, stole and embezzled $1,074,576 over the past seven years – as far back as Columbia Bank maintained records.

Foss was office manager since 1985 in the practice her father, Dr. Galen Hoover, founded in the late 1960s.

Messages left Friday with Foss were not returned.

In an e-mail sent to Dr. John Stewart, president of the practice, and cited in court documents, Foss’ husband, Atle, wrote, “Suzanne would like to meet with all of you one last time to express her heartfelt devastating sorrow over what has happened.”

In a phone interview, Stewart said his reaction to the theft “was one of shock and sadness, because this was a woman I put my complete trust in for over 25 years.”

Suzanne Foss also has been charged in Pierce County Superior Court with two counts of first-degree theft. She was arraigned Aug. 10 and pleaded not guilty. A pretrial conference is scheduled for Thursday.

Additionally, a lawsuit filed June 28 names Foss and her husband among a group of defendants in foreclosure proceedings against Mountain View Dairy in Graham.

As president of the dairy in October 2005, Atle Foss secured a $1.5 million loan that hasn’t been repaid, according to court records. As of April, the amount due was more than $1.6 million, records show. A hearing in that case is scheduled for Oct. 22.

Mike Shaffer, who represented Suzanne Foss in the civil case, referred questions to her criminal attorney Brett Purtzer. Purtzer was out of the office Friday and didn’t return a call or an e-mail.

In July, Superior Court Judge Brian Tollefson granted judgments totaling more than $776,590 to the doctors, based on money missing over the past three years, plus fees and interest.

Stewart said the doctors sought reimbursement for only the past three years to get a summary judgment after the defense raised the issue of a statute of limitations. The doctors still can pursue the remaining four years if they choose, he said.

“I don’t think it’s likely they’ll get their judgment paid in full,” said attorney Matt Green, who represented the doctors in the civil lawsuit. “Given the available assets that the debtor has, that’s not likely to occur.”

“She never saved any of it,” Stewart said, citing Suzanne Foss’ credit card statements that detail a lavish lifestyle of expensive vacations and shopping sprees at Nordstrom.

Stewart said he discovered the unauthorized checks in March.

“I know exactly why it wasn’t caught,” he said in a phone interview. “We trusted her so much that none of us could ever believe that she would be doing this kind of thing.”

In November 2009, Tacoma Orthopaedic Surgeons, which also operates as Gig Harbor Orthopaedic Surgeons and Gig Harbor Ambulatory Surgery Center, sold its practice to Franciscan Health System.

A large amount of money was deposited into the practice’s overhead account, and Stewart said he decided to monitor the transactions because he was nervous that so much money might prove “very tempting” to someone.

When he reviewed three months of account activity, he said, he spotted three unauthorized checks in the amounts of $19,000, $14,000 and $11,000. Further review found more unauthorized checks.

The doctors said Foss regularly wrote checks from the practice’s Columbia Bank account, signed on behalf of Tacoma Orthopaedic Surgeons, then presented the checks to Bank of America for payment on her personal credit card, according to court documents.

In a victim statement for the criminal trial, Stewart wrote: “The cost of maintaining the office had been increasing, and at one point in early 2009 she came to us saying we were overdrawn $250,000.

“We gave money back to her from our personal accounts to cover this shortfall. Subsequently, she took almost $250,000 from our joint account in 2009. She did the same thing to the employees. She was cutting back on their benefits while at the same time taking money from our practice for herself.”

“We can document greater than $1 million only because the bank records go back only seven years,” he wrote.

Available records show that the first unauthorized check was dated Jan. 23, 2003. The pattern of continued spending continued until the theft was discovered, documents state.

According to court documents, the unauthorized check amounts increased significantly throughout the years. Foss traveled frequently to Las Vegas, at one point withdrawing $5,000 in cash. She traveled several times to Hawaii and Arizona.

She also shopped regularly at Nordstrom, often spending thousands of dollars each month. In a one-month period in 2008, she bought $7,600 worth of clothing at Nordstrom.

This week, Suzanne Foss’ assets were seized, including the couple’s property in Vaughn, Green said. He said it is valued at about $1.4 million, with about $1 million still owed on it.