BY ART BUKOWSKI
---- — Editor's Note: Part of a series of stories about people, places and events that made news in the Grand Traverse region in 2012.
TRAVERSE CITY — The new Society of St. Vincent de Paul thrift shop appears cleaner and brighter than the nonprofit's old location a short distance away.
It's also right along Woodmere Avenue in Traverse City, a big improvement over the old, out-of-the way shop along Beitner Street near the city's public works department.
The new location provides more than just a physical upgrade. It's another way for the agency to move past a stressful embezzlement investigation that ensnared former director Mary Lee Flohe. Flohe in April pleaded guilty to a felony charge and was ordered to repay the organization more than $20,000.
"Once the court case was over, as board members, we really felt it was necessary to get out of the old building and to find something new," board president Margaret Sophiea said. "It really felt good, and what's most important, I really think our customers like it."
Authorities said Flohe, who from 1990 until 2010 served as the society's president and director, bilked thousands from the organization. She wrote checks to family and friends, used society money to pay her personal bills and gave herself an unauthorized $10,000 retirement bonus, police said.
An audit uncovered about $140,000 in potentially embezzled funds from 2005 to 2010 alone, but Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Alan Schneider acknowledged there was ambiguity about what the society's board said she could or couldn't do with St. Vincent funds.
Flohe, 70, initially faced nine felony counts of stealing between $1,000 and $20,000 from a nonprofit or charitable organization, but those counts were dismissed as part of a deal in which she pleaded guilty to a count of attempted embezzlement.
Flohe spent four months in jail and was ordered to pay $23,000 in restitution. She's been making monthly payments and so far paid $14,200, court officials said. She did not return a call seeking comment for this story.
Flohe's husband is former Elmwood Township Supervisor Noel Flohe, who served as St. Vincent's treasurer while his wife served as director. He was not charged with any crimes.
The embezzlement ordeal likely made the organization stronger and able to help more people, those who work there believe.
"I think it's very important that we're here," thrift store manager Angela Ward said. "Every day something happens here where we've done something to help someone."
The society is moving ahead without two people who played a key role in uncovering Flohe's embezzlement. Thrift store assistant Carol Ebright — who approached police after she noticed financial irregularities — said she quit not long after the legal proceedings because of disagreements with some board members, including new secretary Jim Casler.
Former store manager Barb Bates declined comment, but Ebright said Bates was forced out by the society's board as part of an apparent "out with the old and in with the new" policy.
"I think he just had sort of an agenda to get rid of everybody that was there," Ebright said of Casler.
Casler said the board made a decision to "relieve" all volunteers and employees of their duties while they reorganized the society. That re-organization is continuing as the society continues to look for the right "niche" among organizations that help the needy, Casler said.
"We don't want to duplicate the efforts that other agencies are doing well," he said.
The organization will hire a new executive director once it figures out exactly how it wants to move forward, Casler said.