The talk in the town of Eatonville swirls around money missing from fraternal Masonic Lodge No. 228, Terrestrial Mt. View.
The damage? As much as $250,000 drained from the lodge’s bank accounts, according to its leaders and the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department.
Eatonville police aren’t touching the case. They took the first report and forwarded it to the sheriff’s office, according to an emailed statement from Mayor Ray Harper.
“The Eatonville Police Department will not be participating in this case in any way unless requested to do so by the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office.”
“It’s obvious that there’s money missing,” sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said. “We’re aware of the accusations going both ways.”
It’s complicated. The details surfaced Nov. 20, when an accused thief accused a town councilman of theft. Both men are lodge members.
The councilman: James Valentine, former secretary-treasurer of the lodge. He denies the charge.
“I really don’t know what to say,” he said last week. “I’m as dumbfounded as anyone else. It’s just he-said, she-said. They’re not out of money.”
The accuser: Anthony Ward, worshipful master of the lodge. He says he has proof, a stack of bank records delivered to the authorities.
The lodge “will attempt any legal action we can to get the funds back,” he said. “It’s a disgrace to Masonry.”
Ward says the Eatonville dust-up has nothing to do with his own legal troubles in Thurston County, where prosecutors have charged him with first-degree theft.
The charge, filed in September after an investigation by the state auditor, alleges Ward misappropriated more than $62,000 from the local cemetery district in Yelm. Ward was caretaker of the cemetery district for a decade, until district commissioners fired him in 2011.
Ward is pleading not guilty.
“It’s just a coincidence,” he said, referring to his membership in the Eatonville lodge and the discovery of missing money.
He adds he didn’t spot the problem himself; another member did. As head of the lodge, Ward, who joined a few years ago, said he was duty-bound to report the matter to police.
The lodge has about 50 dues-paying members, Ward said. It’s been around since the 1930s. Its money comes from dues, donations and investments gathered over the decades.
Valentine said the lodge’s money troubles go back years, long before his arrival in 2007.
He noticed financial irregularities when he first joined. He said some members had taken out personal loans for themselves, reaching close to $100,000. Valentine said he hired an attorney to negotiate terms to repay the loans.
When lodge members held elections in September, Valentine said he couldn’t continue as secretary-treasurer because his wife had been diagnosed with cancer.
Ward said that election prompted the new officers to look over the books. He said Larry Byrd, another member, elected as the new secretary-treasurer, discovered money was missing.
Byrd, interviewed Thursday, said that was true; he said he found numerous checks with Valentine’s signature. He doesn’t know what the money paid for.
“(Valentine) was writing checks like he had an unlimited bank account – and he’s supposed to get approval from the lodge before he writes one check and he didn’t get any permission at all,” Byrd said.
Byrd learned last week the lodge faced possible foreclosure on its meeting hall due to $5,000 in unpaid taxes. A last-minute infusion of money solved that problem, he said. Valentine knew of the trouble, Byrd said – but didn’t tell the members.
“He knew about the foreclosure statement because he got it in the mail,” Byrd said. “I’m so mad at the guy it’s crazy.”
The two sides also are arguing over lodge records.
Ward and Byrd say Valentine refused to turn them over.
Valentine said he tried to hand over the paperwork, leaving papers at the lodge. He said Ward asked to have more records delivered to a local auto parts store, which sounded fishy to him.
Ward refers to a stray comment he says Valentine made in June, when the lodge needed $650 to pay for a roof repair. He recalls Valentine asking whether the lodge even had that much money.
The combatants can’t even agree on who’s talking to who. Byrd and Ward say Valentine won’t return their calls. Valentine says no one has called him.
The complications don’t end there. Byrd and Ward also are members of a Masonic lodge in Yelm, but their roles are reversed: Byrd is the worshipful master of the Yelm lodge, and Ward serves as secretary-treasurer.
“I can be an officer in one lodge, but cannot be a warden or master in any other lodge,” Byrd said. “I joined (the Eatonville lodge) to try and help out the lodge because it’s losing membership – now we’re gonna have less.”
Byrd also defended Ward, saying his troubles in Thurston County are irrelevant.
“Granted that Tony has a problem – but he didn’t do it to the Masons,” Byrd said. “He was just running a business at the cemetery, and he made a mistake.”
Valentine said he doesn’t know who’s in charge at the lodge anymore, or who’s making decisions. He said he first heard of the accusations against him when a News Tribune reporter called him about 10 days ago.
“I guess I’ll just have to live through it,” he said. “I’m trying to preserve my life - that’s all I’m trying to do.”
Sheriff’s deputies are trying to unravel the snarl, starting with an inspection of financial records from the lodge. Investigators believe the financial records, gathered last week, should mark a clear trail to the culprit.
“It’s going to come out eventually,” Troyer said. “It just takes time.”
Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486