Nothing for Money

As an eligibility clerk for the Arizona Department of Economic Security, Gloria-Jean Clarke spent her days with poor people, signing them up for welfare and inclusion in the state's indigent health-care system.

Although Clarke certainly didn't qualify for food stamps, she always found it difficult to save on a $21,000 salary. So she was tempted when her supervisor, Kimberly Woods, and another DES co-worker, Frances Alvarez, approached her last year and asked her to join a savings club called a "cundina."

Now Clarke alleges that she was scammed by Woods and Alvarez--that Woods, as her boss, coerced her into joining the club and that Alvarez owes her $350. She has provided Governor J. Fife Symington III with copies of correspondence and canceled checks that she says prove her case.

The Department of Economic Security is investigating her charges, but Clarke just wants her $350 back.

Clarke had heard of savings plans, such as the Christmas Club her bank operated, but she says she had never heard of a cundina until May 5, 1995. On that day, Clarke says, she was working an eligibility case, and had to review some information with her supervisor, Woods. Woods and Alvarez were in Woods' office visiting, Clarke says, and that's when they asked her to join.

According to Clarke, Alvarez, the cundina's organizer, then explained how the club works:

Each member of a group of people (in this case, nine) gives the cundina's organizer $50 a pay period--or about $100 a month--for ten months. The organizer also pitches in $100 a month. Each month, numbers are drawn and one person gets the $1,000 pot. Each person can only win the pot once.

Frances Alvarez, Clarke's co-worker and the cundina's organizer, explained to Clarke that she would be the 11th person, and therefore would receive her money on the last month, January 1996. The club had started the month before, so she would get $1,000 at the end, while everyone else would get $1,100.

Clarke, who is from Trinidad, told Alvarez that in her country such a club is called a "Su-Su."

In fact, such informal investment clubs are found in many cultures. The cundina's origin is in central Mexico. The Chinese have the "tong ting," Koreans the "kye," Japanese the "tanamoshi" and African Americans the "family investment team."

Clarke says she returned to her client without agreeing to join the cundina. Woods and Alvarez approached her at her desk and, finally, Clarke says, she agreed to join.

Alvarez was the instigator, Clarke recalls, but Woods belonged to the club as well.

"Kimberly was talking to me, too, saying, 'Yes, Gloria, why don't you join? You could use the money for Christmas. If you join, that means more money for us.'"

The cundina did not promise any interest on the money invested, but Clarke figured it would be a good way to save. She has always had trouble saving money. And she says she thought it would improve her relationship with Woods.

Alvarez told Clarke that the other members of the investment club were workers in other DES offices.

"She [Alvarez] said, 'There's no use me telling you their names, because you don't know them,'" Clarke recalls.

To this day, Clarke has not met another member.
In hindsight, Clarke admits she should have been wary of the cundina.
But, she says, "This is my supervisor, okay? Even though she's a rude person and all that, I like to get along with people. On the other hand, it was going to benefit me."

And, Clarke adds, she had been working at DES for six years. Her co-workers were like a second family.

"Everybody I have worked with, they're very nice, okay? Supervisors, co-workers, they help you, there's a camaraderie there. If you don't understand something, or you don't understand some policy or whatever, you can go and ask a supervisor who is not even your supervisor," she says.

"Here I am in that sort of environment. I am not thinking, 'Hey, Gloria, look out. Somebody's trying to scam you. You should check on this.'"

Clarke made her payments from May through October, when she resigned from DES on the advice of her doctor, because of stress. She had written checks totaling $450 to Alvarez, and one check for $100 to Woods. At the time of her resignation, Clarke phoned Alvarez and asked for her money back.

She says Alvarez told her she could get part of the money immediately, but would have to wait until her turn at the end of January to receive the remainder.

Clarke visited Alvarez at her office and collected $200. She says Alvarez told her to phone her at work in January, and she would give her $350.

But Clarke says that although she phoned Alvarez repeatedly and made appointments to meet, the appointments were always broken.

When Clarke finally spoke to Alvarez, the cundina's organizer demanded copies of Clarke's canceled checks. When Clarke provided them, she claims that Alvarez changed the rules of the cundina--insisting that Clarke had forfeited her money by quitting early.

So Clarke wrote to Governor Symington. Her letter was forwarded to DES officials, who say they reviewed her complaints and, initially, chose not to take action, maintaining that the cundina was not operated on state time or with state equipment.

But when it was pointed out to DES spokesman Fernando Vender that--at least in Clarke's view, in documents she had provided to the state--the cundina was operated on state time, and that she had been urged by her supervisor to join, the state decided to investigate.

Moises Gallegos, program administrator for the Family Assistance Administration at DES, says he was unaware that Clarke felt coerced by her supervisor to join the cundina, or that it was operated on state time.

"That is not behavior that we tolerate. If we have reports of such things, we do look into them. Now, as you can well imagine, that is a very difficult thing to prove or disprove," he says.

Howard Boyce, spokesman for the Department of Administration, says the state's personnel rules are up for interpretation by individual state agencies. There is no rule specifically prohibiting investment clubs at work, he says, but broader rules prohibit the use of state time and/or property to conduct personal business. Also, activities that could potentially embarrass the state are not allowed.

Boyce says the activity alleged by Clarke "could lead to discipline and/or firing, but it wouldn't necessarily if the agency didn't think it was disrupting anything or causing a problem and they weren't using [state equipment and time]."

Alvarez hung up the phone when asked about the cundina and Clarke's charges. Woods could not be reached for comment.

Clarke now works at ComCare, a nonprofit group involved with mental health care. She says she has phoned around and could find no one else at DES who had heard of Alvarez's cundina.

"I want my money. That is all I want. I don't want anybody to get fired, but if they get fired, that is their business. If they get fired, they can't pay me!" Clarke says.