State commission director charged with embezzling

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — A state Hispanic and Latino commission’s former director has been charged by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette with embezzling money intended for a Cesar Chavez statue.

Maria Louisa Mason, 80, is facing felony embezzlement charges after allegedly stealing $73,500 from a state fund meant to pay for the memorial statue of American labor and civil rights activist Chavez. Her bond was set at $10,000 and she’s facing an initial court date on April 27.

Mason was arraigned Tuesday before Magistrate Laura Millmore in Lansing District Court after the Michigan Civil Rights Department filed a complaint with Michigan State Police over suspicions that Mason was embezzling money meant for a Chavez memorial statue to be erected in Lansing. The statue has not been built.

Schuette alleges that Mason took state money given to the commission by transferring funds to a nonprofit and local community center whose bank accounts she controlled. Mason transferred the money to her personal accounts and took “numerous cash withdrawals” for her personal use, according to Schuette’s office.

“I have said it before and will continue to, public officials are held to a higher standard,” Schuette said in a statement. “Ms. Mason was allegedly using funds dedicated to a memorial statue to instead fund her personal expenses and now she is facing the consequences.”

Mason allegedly used the money to pay for credit cards from AMEX, Capital One, Chase, Discover, Macy’s, Bloomingdales and for Michigan and Lansing taxes, auto insurance, utility and cell phone bills, shoes and other items, according to Schuette’s office.

State police investigated Mason from February 2013 to June 2015 before she retired in December 2015. The commission appointed Felipe Lopez-Sustaita its executive director in June 2016 following Mason’s retirement.

Mason’s annual salary at the time of her retirement was $104,317, according to the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

Commissioners of the Hispanic/Latino Commission of Michigan — who are appointed by the governor — selected Mason, who was born in San Antonio, Texas. She has been the commission’s director for nearly 30 years. The state Senate also consents to commission appointments.

Mason was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 2014 for struggling “through poverty and discrimination as a migrant worker, woman, Latina and single parent” to become the first female executive director of the Michigan Commission on Spanish-Speaking Affairs. She was appointed by Democrat and former Gov. James Blanchard.

The commission was later renamed the Hispanic/Latino Commission and pushes for lower high school dropout rates among Hispanic youth and works to enroll more Hispanic Michiganians in post-secondary education and training programs, according to its mission statement.

“Her empathy and legislative testimony helped pass a $350,000 increase in appropriations for migrant housing in Michigan,” according to the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame.

The commission said in a Thursday statement that it takes its members’ responsibility and ethical behavior “very seriously” and notified the state Civil Rights Department as concerns surfaced that Mason may have been funneling state money to her personal accounts.

“We appreciate the department’s swift response and the fact that our concerns were taken seriously,” the commission said in a statement. “We have full faith in the competence and professionalism of the Michigan State Police and the Attorney General’s office to bring this situation to an appropriate resolution.”

Frank Reynolds, Mason’s attorney, declined comment.