LANSING, MICH. - A retired state employee who lives in Williamston has been charged with embezzling public money intended to build a memorial statue in honor of Cesar Chavez.
Maria Louisa Mason, 80, was arraigned Tuesday in 54A District Court on charges of embezzlement, between $50,000 and $100,000, and embezzlement by a public official over $50.
Mason was a longtime director of the Hispanic/Latino Commission of Michigan, said Vicki Levengood, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. Mason is accused of stealing money from a state fund designated for the memorial statue, the state Attorney General's Office said in a news release. That statue has not been built.
Embezzlement between $50,000 and $100,000 is punishable by up to 15 years in prison upon conviction. The other offense carries a maximum 10-year penalty.
Mason's attorney, Frank Reynolds, said he had no comment and is waiting for more information from prosecutors.
Michigan State Police began investigating after the Department of Civil Rights filed a complaint alleging Mason had stolen money given to the state to build a Cesar Chavez Memorial statue in Lansing, according to the news release.
The state police investigation showed Mason embezzled more than $73,500 between February 2013 and June 2015, the attorney general's office said. She retired in December 2015.
Mason arranged to have the money transferred to a non-profit and a local community center, then transferred the money to her personal accounts, officials said.
She used the money to pay numerous credit card bills, including American Express, Capital One, Chase, Discover, Macy’s and Bloomingdale's, they said. She also used the money to pay her University Club fees and her state and city taxes, among other things, they said.
A magistrate set a $10,000 personal bond for Mason. A hearing to determine if there is enough evidence for her to stand trial on the charges is set for May 4.
Mason ran the Hispanic/Latino Commission -- formerly the Office on Spanish Speaking Affairs -- for nearly 30 years, according to a news release announcing her retirement. She started the Michigan Hispanic Heritage Month celebration, the Hispanic Student Summit and Legislative Advocacy Day at the state capitol.
Mason was the first woman to lead the commission and the first Hispanic woman to serve on Lansing Community College's governing board, the release said.
Neither commission Chairman Noel Garcia nor Felipe Lopez-Sustaita, the current executive director, could be reached for comment.
The Hispanic/Latino Commission was transferred from the Civil Rights Department to the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs last year.
LARA's website says the commission markets career development services to the state's Hispanic population, supports efforts to cut high school dropout rates for Hispanic students and furthers efforts to boost enrollment of Hispanics in post-secondary education and training programs. A recent annual report indicates it also helps provide various outreach services, including mental health counseling to thousands in the Latino community.
The state Legislature appropriated about $261,000 for the agency in the 2016-17 fiscal year.
Justin Hinkley and Matt Mencarini contributed to this report.
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