July 19, 2008

Porter expenses mystify witness

The Central Valley Museum of Agriculture, a private nonprofit funded with rancher Frank Craig's money, filed articles of incorporation but never had any bylaws or official meetings, according to an accountant who testified Friday in Stanislaus County Superior Court.

When former pastor Howard "Doug" Porter set up the foundation, he signed a document that said none of the museum's assets should be used for the personal benefit of its directors.

Yet the defense expert, who returned to the witness stand for a third day of questioning, acknowledged that Porter pocketed money meant for the museum.

Certified public accountant Gerald Deller's $167,000 estimate is far less than the $820,000 authorities traced to Porter, but he struggled to explain some of the transactions made by Porter and members of the Porter family.

"I did not know why they didn't follow the rules," Deller said. "I could see that they didn't."

Craig enlisted Porter's help because he dreamed of using millions inherited from a brother to showcase farm equipment he collected over decades. Craig thought his old tractors and other "treasures" could help teach children about a bygone era when farming was a way of life for most people.

Craig was 83 in 2002 when a truck driven by Porter veered off Lake Road and slammed into a tree. Craig was 85 in 2004 when a truck driven by Porter veered off an embankment and landed in the Ceres Main Canal.

Craig was crippled in the first wreck and drowned in the second.

Porter, 57, walked away both times, but is on trial suspected of murder, attempted murder, theft or embezzlement from an elder by a caretaker, and elder abuse causing death. The trial began with jury selection May 12 and is heading toward closing arguments.

The foundation was supposed to build an agricultural museum on land purchased with Craig's money, adjacent to the Hickman Community Church where Porter was pastor for nearly two decades.

Porter worked on plans for a museum and multipurpose building, but he also used Craig's money to buy and sell two homes, pay off lines of credit and move members of his family to a four-house compound in La Grange, according to a mountain of financial records presented to the jury in recent weeks.

The foundation didn't have a governing board, Deller said, and it never filed any tax returns. The accountant faced a barrage of prosecution questions because his analysis sanctioned financial transactions that prosecutors question, including:

$133,500 to Porter's father, used to purchase a modular home that later was deeded to the church.

$93,000 to demolish Craig's home and clear his land so Porter could sell Craig's 20-acre ranch to Frantz Nursery.

$4,500 paid to Porter's father-in-law, for cleanup of Craig's property several months after the ranch was sold for $415,000.

Deller also was on the hot seat because he did not comply with the court's "discovery" rules, which require the defense and prosecution to share information. That became clear when Deller took the witness stand Monday and Deputy District Attorney John R. Mayne noted Deller's trial binder was twice as thick as the information he forwarded to the district attorney's office.

Judge Thomas Zeff sent Deller to his Modesto office to retrieve all of his work in the case, reviewed the materials in private and ordered that three boxes of documents be turned over.

It turns out the defense received a 20-page report summarizing Deller's findings, while prosecutors were given four pages.

The missing information showed Deller relied on explanations from Porter's wife and mother as he tried to determine whether expenses should be attributed to the museum or to Porter, something Deller acknowledged earlier in the week.

The accountant initially said he had no explanation for the discrepancy, but later said he redacted information on the advice of attorney Leslie Jensen, who represents Porter in a lawsuit brought by Craig's relatives.

"She advised me not to include it," Deller said.

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at sherendeen@modbee.com or 578-2338.

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