Longform

Children of Synanon

Page 3 of 8

By late 1991, Amity's managers--Fleishman, Mullen and Arbiter divided the duties--turned to its board of directors for emergency assistance. Two of those members, Tucson accountant Jon Young and National Bank of Arizona president John Gisi, soon emerged as the board's most active members.

"This is bigger than I am," Mullen says he recalls telling Young and Gisi. "I don't know what I'm doing and I really need a hand."

The Synanon game required participants to gather chairs in a circle. A theme was introduced--ranging from worldly philosophical questions to mundane housekeeping matters--and the attacks would begin.

The verbal assaults--physical violence was forbidden--didn't necessarily have to be based on reality. One person could launch a tirade on another with no foundation. Others in the group generally supported the attacker with comments of their own.

The goal was to dump emotional hangups during the game so people would be happy outside the game. That was the upside. The downside was that it distorted reality and inflicted emotional injury.

"You could accuse a person of anything and everyone else may join in on the attack," says David Mitchell, a California weekly newspaper publisher who shared in a 1979 Pulitzer Prize for reporting on Synanon in the 1970s.

"There could be no basis for the attack whatsoever. But everyone would keep adding made-up anecdotes to beat the guy down until he cries, even if he hadn't done anything," Mitchell says.

Everyone at Synanon played the game several evenings a week--including Arbiter, Mullen and Fleishman. They later adopted a variation of the game for use at Amity, calling it the "circle" and removing some of the game's more vicious components.

But the principle of the game--launching personal attacks on others whether true or not--appears to be at the heart of the Mullen-Arbiter-Fleishman conspiracy scenario that accuses former board members of setting out to destroy Amity.

Their sharp attacks, based on meager evidence, shift quickly from one target to another, with the common theme that all the alleged wrongdoers are friends.

The center of their furious assault is a former Amity accountant, whom the trio attempts to discredit by first besmirching the accountant's personal and professional reputation, then linking her to other board members.

The accountant, Michelle Quintenilla, joined Amity in the fall of 1991 after Mullen went to the board seeking financial help. Board members Jon Young and John Gisi selected Quintenilla, even though she had no previous accounting experience with a nonprofit business like Amity that relied on federal and state grants.

Quintenilla immediately installed a formal accounting system and instituted other reforms, which soon brought her into conflict with management.

Her personality also didn't jibe with Amity's top management, and Quintenilla soon found herself as the odd person out.

"I didn't like her," Mullen says. "I didn't trust her."
Quintenilla declined to be interviewed for this story.
In the spring of 1992, Quintenilla changed the way Amity received its federal grant money. In the past, Amity mailed vouchers to the government showing bills it needed to pay, and the government would later send Amity money to cover the expenses.

Quintenilla upgraded Amity's cash-flow system by tapping into a government program that allowed the funds to be transferred electronically. The change gave Amity much quicker access to cash.

This seemingly minor technical change has become the focal point in the alleged conspiracy to wreck Amity. It was this single incident that Mullen says caused Amity's financial collapse.

And, it was done purposely, he says.
"I don't think that was a mistake," he says.
Mullen claims that when Quintenilla switched to the electronic withdrawal system, she was supposed to change Amity's accounting method from an accrual basis to a cash basis. The two methods differ chiefly in when a business must account for its bills.

Mullen says Quintenilla's failure to make the accounting adjustment led him to believe he had funds available for spending on nonfederal programs, when, in fact, he didn't.

"We thought we had the money and could spend it how we chose. We did that," he says.

This mistake eventually led to Amity overspending its federal grants by $517,000, forcing it into bankruptcy, Mullen says.

Mullen, Arbiter and Fleishman say Quintenilla made this error with the intention of destroying Amity. And, they say, she made the mistake in collusion with certain board members--particularly Young and Gisi, since they hired her.

The conspiracy widens, Mullen says, when Amity's independent auditors--whom he claims are friends of Quintenilla's and Young's--failed to detect the cash/accrual accounting error for two years.

The failure of the auditing firm, Frizzell, Senkerick & Associates, to discover the accounting error meant that Amity sent false financial reports to the federal government for two years, Mullen says.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty