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STATE SENATE DISTRICT 13

GOP state senate candidate faces September trial for looting Orlando HOA

July 4, 2024 at 11:36:28 AM

Jake Bell

Reporter

Candidate Cheryl "CJ" Blancett, in a photo from her campaign website and her mug shot when she was arrested for allegedly stealing nearly $48,000 from the Orlando HOA where she was property manager from 2018 to 2019.

Cheryl “CJ” Blancett, 64, of Leesburg, is on the ballot for the Aug. 20 State Senate District 13 Republican primary. But the following month, on Sept. 23, the candidate, who describes herself as a “gladiator for the U.S. Constitution,” goes on trial for two counts of felony theft in Orange County’s Ninth Judicial Circuit Court.


If Blancett, the founder of United Conservatives Alliance, is found guilty of stealing nearly $48,000 from the Orlando homeowner’s association (HOA) she was hired to manage, she could face 15 years in prison and fines of $10,000 for each count. 


According to the arrest affidavit from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO), Blancett, who touts her marriage to a “Law Enforcement Officer” on her campaign website, used the HOA bank account as her own “personal bank account” and “knowingly withheld records, intermingled funds, and used cash to conceal the theft and permanently deprive the Cypress Springs Sawgrass Estates HOA of $47,832.30.”


Blancett was arrested in Tavares on April 17, 2023, after an investigation that spanned two years. She was released on $3,000 bond. She has pleaded not guilty. 


“The bogus case against me was filed lacking probable cause,” Blancett said in a Wednesday text message to VoxPopuli. “I feel the filing was politically motivated. My attorneys have advised me not to discuss the case. I have filed a not-guilty plea, and I anxiously await my day in court.” 


Missing financial reports

The owner of the property management company CJ Managements Solutions, Blancett began managing Cypress Springs Sawgrass Estates, a community of single family homes on the east side of Orlando, in April 2018. There, she processed homeowner dues, paid HOA bills, enforced the codes and covenants and sent out notices of violations. It was also expected that she would distribute quarterly financial reports. 


HOA board member James Cargill (who goes by Sam) was the one who brought Blancett into Cypress Spring Sawgrass Estates. According to court documents, he’d known Blancett from her work with the HOA’s previous management company, and he invited her to interview with himself, HOA president Arlene Ford and then-treasurer Robert Witt when the HOA was looking for new management. 


Sixteen months later, Blancett was fired after what the three HOA board members later told an Orange County sheriff’s deputy were numerous unfulfilled requests for expenditure reports and bank statements. It was fitting, perhaps, that it was Cargill who made the call to the OSCO on October 30, 2019, to report the theft. 


According to the report filed by Det. Jacob Devine of OCSO’s Economic Crimes Unit, board members were aware Blancett had stolen money. But it was only after the next property manager conducted a forensic audit that they became aware of the full scope of the theft. Cargill estimated that the HOA spent an average of $22,000 annually to run the community. But the bank records audit found $47,832.30 in unauthorized funds paid to CJ Management Solutions.


Community residents appeared unaware Blancett was running for state office. 


“You’ve got to be kidding me,” one resident said when told, adding they wanted nothing more to do with her. They asked not to be identified because of the pending litigation. 


A “non-existent contract”

When she accepted the management job at Cypress Springs Sawgrass Estates, Blancett claimed that she initially had a “formal written contract,” but that over time, operations became much more casual. 


”We entered into a formal written contract, which turned verbal and eventually non-existent in the way we operated,” Blancett said in the Sept. 20, 2021 statement she supplied to Devine when she met him at a Dr. Phillips Starbucks for an informal discussion about the case.


“There is no reason she should have been writing checks to herself and taking large amounts of cash out.”


Blancett said that Ford understood that she would hire her own contractors for projects, installations and landscaping and that her practice was to have her vendors bill her own company, and that she would then reimburse herself from the HOA bank account.


“Most of the association's funds were in CDs, so Arlene agreed that I could use my vendors to conduct work, they would bill me, then I would reimburse myself from the association's account,” Blancett said in her statement. “This was done with the knowledge and permission of Arlene and Sam …. Arlene would say ‘Don’t worry, Mama, just do what you need to do …. As long as we know what’s going on, that’s all that matters.’” 


[Editor’s Note: Bank CDs, or certificates of deposit, are savings accounts that offer higher interest on deposits that stay in the account for a specified time. There are typically penalties for early funds withdrawal.]


Blancett said that Robert Witt, the HOA treasurer, was not involved in these discussions. She said he would say, “If it’s good with them [Arlene and Sam], it’s good with me.” 


“Total abuse of our HOA funds”

The HOA board members told a different story in their statements to the OCSO


Witt said Blancett had permission only to spend up to $500 without notifying the board for “immediately needed repairs, maintenance, or other similar needs.” 


Ford said Blancett “would spend funds as she saw fit,” but that the board “did not authorize her to withdraw any cash from the HOA account.” 


According to the Orange County arrest affidavit, Blancett “frequently used cash far exceeding the $500 limit set by the HOA contract,” including multiple checks made out to herself for more than $1,000. In addition, the affidavit stated, “bank records show various cash withdrawals, debits, and transfers without any reasonable explanation of use.”


“We started suspecting something was wrong when we kept asking for the financials, and she kept making excuses,” Ford said in her statement to OCSO. 


When Devine, the economic crimes unit detective, talked with Blancett at the Starbucks, he asked her about one check for $1,121.10 that she had cashed from the HOA account on Jan. 7, 2019. Blancett maintained that Ford had been present with her and authorized the transfer of funds “to be used for the community.” When Devine challenged her, saying that her explanation didn’t align with Ford’s, Blancett first said Ford was “lying,” then said she and Ford were friends who often dined together, that Blancett would pick Ford up from work and the two “would discuss funds regularly.”  


Ultimately, court documents show, Blancett provided no explanation other than Ford had approved the transfer, which Ford denied in her own statement. 


“There is no reason she should have been writing checks to herself and taking large amounts of cash out,” Ford said. 


“The majority of expenses were not approved” by anyone on the HOA board, Cargill confirmed in his statement. “The large cash/check amounts do not make any sense. I see a total abuse and mishandling of our HOA funds that were spent.” 


Investigation obstruction 

In August 2019, after Blancett was fired, Jennifer Conklin of Highland Community Management came on board as property manager. That’s when they realized “large sums of money were missing from the HOA accounts,” according to the statement Witt gave to OCSO.


Hampering the investigation, however, was the fact that the HOA board had never instituted any type of formal bookkeeping system, according to court documents. Blancett did not maintain records and refused to provide expenditure reports, so it was initially difficult to confirm the amount of money that should have been spent, the amount that should have been collected, and the actual bank balances. Neither the HOA president nor the treasurer seemed aware of the community expenditures. At one point, Blancett had successfully managed to close the HOA’s bank account to prevent the board members from accessing their own funds. 


“It was a rude awakening,” one community resident who didn’t want to be identified because of the pending litigation told VoxPopuli.


The investigation was inactive for two months because, Devine noted in his initial report, without bookkeeping records or other paper trail, there was “insufficient evidence” to prove Blancett had diverted HOA funds to her own business account for personal use. 


But Conklin doggedly tracked down bank statements and vendor invoices. Once Devine subpoenaed “a full bank-issued list of expenses,” Conklin was able to conduct a forensic audit. With the help of the board members who combed through the list of expenditures, checking off unapproved expenses, they were eventually able to piece together the financial picture. 


"Arlene would say ‘Don’t worry, Mama, just do what you need to do …. As long as we know what’s going on, that’s all that matters.' "


What they ultimately found was that from April 12, 2018, to July 15, 2019, Blancett spent $65,722.34. Once the theft was discovered, Highland Community Management and the Cypress Springs Sawgrass Estates HOA were able to recover approximately $17,890.04, according to court documents, although it’s unclear where the recovered funds came from.


Conklin also identified two checks — one for $2,000 and one for $3,000 — written from Blancett’s son Christopher’s personal Wells Fargo bank account to the HOA. That brought the HOA account, which had contained $19,378.19 at the start of Blancett’s tenure, and had dwindled to $2,226.05 under her management tenure, up to a balance of $7,226.05. 


In her statement to Devine, Blancett claimed the $5,000 were “left over funds” that she was returning to the HOA because she was no longer the property manager. Devine noted, “She reiterated that clearly she did not steal any funds.” 


Conklin countered in her statement that the checks were “an attempt to mitigate the theft and cover up the loss.” 


A total of $47,832.30 remains unaccounted for. 


Who mows the grass?

In addition to the financial issues, court documents also show an ongoing turf war between Blancett and Cargill over who had the authority to mow the community’s lawns.


Cargill stated that he had been paid $950 per month to mow the community common areas. But at some point, Blancett decided to bring in her own landscapers because there were areas that “were not up to her standard,” the HOA board members said. 


Blancett said in her statement that the “enforce[d] mowing throughout the community” was simply maintaining the codes and covenants “with Arlene’s [Ford] knowledge and permission." But “things got ugly” because “most of those that had forced cuts were Sam's clients, which had already paid Sam. At that point, Sam accused me of "stealing money from the association by hiring my friends to cut lawns.”


After that incident, Blancett said she tried to quit, but Ford “insisted” she stay. Blancett said she agreed to stay on for another month “to make sure they could manage themselves." But less than a month later, Witt told her “they decided to go in a different direction.” 


In his brief statement, Witt had a different view of Blancett’s leaving: “After repeatedly asking for financial updates from CJ, we terminated her for non-compliance, for not supplying said updates.”


“Combative” and “uncooperative”

Blancett, who Devine described as “combative” when he initially called to speak with her before their meeting, has, he noted, largely been “uncooperative” with the HOA and the investigation, refusing to provide an expenditure list or provide any credible explanations for her spending.


When the investigation restarted in February 2022, Devine followed up with Blancett to email additional questions about unverified expenditures that were present in the bank statements. 


“l asked her to provide the names of all vendors which she claimed to pay in cash along with an expenditure list of approved vendors. l asked her to provide an explanation for the cash withdrawals and asked her to clarify her relationship with Sam Cargill and the funds paid to him,” Devine noted in his report


After initially agreeing to look over the email and get back to him, Blancett stopped responding to Devine's phone calls and emails. 


“As of today's date, March 15, 2022, Ms. Blancett has not provided answers to these questions and has not met for a follow-up interview,” Devine wrote in his report


The arrest warrant was drawn up that same day. 


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Norine Dworkin contributed to this report.




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