inewsource’s latest investigation is full of information to unpack.
The husband and wife leading Save Our Heritage Organisation, or SOHO, was accused of taking $70,000 worth of the historical antiques to their private mansion in Mississippi for their personal use.
SOHO is San Diego’s premier nonprofit committed to historic preservation. The antiques were charitable donations that were sitting in SOHO’s storage room. So why did they end up halfway across the country?
Here’s what you need to know.
1. SOHO’s leaders used the nonprofit’s antiques during a tour of their private mansion and received a cut of the proceeds from the event.
Bruce Coons, SOHO’s executive director, and his wife Alana Coons, the education and communications director, took dozens of SOHO’s antiques to their Mississippi home and displayed some of them on a historic home tour — an event where guests could walk through their property and learn about history and architecture.
According to staff at Natchez Pilgrimage Tours, which organized the event, homeowners earn a percentage of ticket sales proportional to the number of guests who visit their property.
The Coons said they spent more than $20,000 preparing for the tour, far more than they earned from it, and did not personally benefit from the antiques displayed there in any way.
2. The Coons listed their mansion for sale online with photos that included SOHO’s antiques.
In December, the Coons posted their two-story, 5,000 square foot Mississippi mansion for sale with a price tag of $1.95 million. The real estate listing featured photos that included SOHO’s antiques, as well as this line: “Sold fully furnished including original antiques.”
The couple said they did not try to sell SOHO property. They provided an inventory of the items for sale with their estate, which did not include any of the objects owned by their nonprofit.
Alana Coons said the photos were only posted with the listing temporarily while she waited for new pictures of the house to be taken.
The house ultimately never sold and was taken off the market.
3. SOHO’s antiques stayed in Mississippi for more than two years, until complaints were made.
After the home tour in 2019, SOHO’s antiques remained inside the Coons’ Mississippi home for more than two years.
The couple said the delay in shipping back the antiques was due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But that didn’t explain why the items weren’t returned in the seven months that lapsed between the tour and the pandemic.
Alana Coons said “there simply was never any urgency” to return the antiques, because they were safely stored and under insurance while in Mississippi.
After complaints were made to SOHO’s board of directors, the Coons said they quickly shipped all the objects back to San Diego.
4. The Coons loaned antiques to themselves without getting approval. Experts said that’s a conflict of interest.
In a letter to SOHO’s board of directors, Alana Coons wrote that she had “made an institutional loan to myself” of the antiques. The Coons acknowledged in an interview that they did not have permission from anyone else at SOHO to use the antiques.
A SOHO spokesperson said the nonprofit had no formal policies in place around accepting or loaning donations at the time.
“There’s a conflict of interest there obviously,” said James Vogt, a certified fraud investigator. “You can’t just unilaterally say, ‘Oh, I’m gonna borrow these things from the organization,’ regardless of your position in the organization.”
The Coons said their use of the items was a mistake, and they supported the development of new policies around loaning SOHO property, which now involves approval from the board of directors.
5. Several valuable antiques taken to Mississippi were never documented. Some worry more items may be unaccounted for.
When board members asked the Coons to explain the situation, the couple provided the board with a “loan sheet” showing what items they took to Mississippi. But the document did not specify where the antiques would be taken, who would receive them or when they would return. In fact, it did not have the word “loan” on it.
After carefully reviewing photos and other records, inewsource found items missing from the Coons’ loan sheet.
A porcelain tea set valued at $1,350, laminated rosewood chairs valued at $5,500 and a Victorian table clock valued at $4,800 were not on the list. Neither were three decorated bed coverings, a Chinese sugar caddy or multiple books donated to SOHO by a descendant of San Diego’s famed Whaley family.
Longtime preservationists told inewsource that the controversy at SOHO is highly unusual and easily preventable if donations are tracked and loans are documented. And because the paper trail is incomplete, some SOHO members are worried that not all of the antiques were located and returned.
6. The independent auditor SOHO hired to investigate the dispute has ties to the organization, sparking controversy.
The board of directors agreed to hire an independent auditor to review the claims against the Coons. They chose the certified public accountant who has worked on SOHO’s tax returns for more than 20 years.
That prompted one board member, Nancy Moors, to resign.
“I just didn’t think it was right, and it was a line I just wasn’t willing to cross,” she said.
The auditor determined that all the antiques in Mississippi were returned to SOHO and none of them were misused.
Another board member, Wayne Donaldson, has continued to speak out about how the claims against SOHO were handled. Donaldson said he was not satisfied by the auditor’s final report, because it didn’t provide enough details and was produced by someone with a connection to the organization.
The president of SOHO’s board, as well as the auditor himself, said the audit was totally independent and thorough.
7. Claims of misconduct at historic preservation groups can have far-reaching implications.
Preservation groups like SOHO use buildings, paintings, clothing, furniture and other items to educate the public and form connections between communities that live decades or centuries apart.
SOHO manages historic house museums and fights the destruction of historic properties throughout San Diego County. The nonprofit has helped preserve some of the most iconic pieces of architecture in the region, including the Cabrillo Bridge in Balboa Park and the Western Metal building in Petco Park.
Claims of wrongdoing in the historic preservation industry, even if they are unfounded, can have major consequences. Public skepticism can lead to fewer donations of cash or historical items and stall efforts to preserve cultural artifacts.
“It can undermine confidence in the integrity of other similar historical preservation organizations, such as historic houses and museums,” said Dale Carolyn Gluckman, a longtime museum professional.
“It can rob present and future generations of important historical information, of everyone’s history.”
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