Monday, 24 June 2024

Miss Lake County Pageant rebuilds with new leadership, plans for January 2010 pageant

This is the first installment in a two-part investigation into the challenges currently faced by organizers of the Miss Lake County Pageant.


LAKE COUNTY – The 45-year-old Miss Lake County Scholarship Organization is in turmoil.


For the first time in decades, there has been no summer pageant, which the new organizers are pushing back to January 2010 due to lack of resources and time constraints.


Many past contestants have only just now received scholarship funds or are still waiting to be paid for their participation with the fall college semester already well under way.


Pageant officials also allege that they can't account for money and the “queen's closet,” which over the last few years has supplied dresses and costumes for pageant contestants, which has resulted in a Lake County Sheriff's Office investigation now being reviewed with the help of the District Attorney's Office.


In addition, there are allegations that locally raised funds might have been co-mingled and used to fund scholarships for contestants in Bay Area pageants.


“This is a sad situation,” said Bob Arnhym, president and chief executive officer of the Miss California Organization, which issues franchise agreements to pageants like Miss Lake County.


Sandra Orchid, one of the new pageant directors, said it feels like they're starting from scratch this year.


They have renamed the organization – now called the Miss Lake County Scholarship Program – and have established a new Web site, www.misslakeco.org, after the former executive director, Trish Combs, refused to turn over the former Web site and maintained that she owns the name “Miss Lake County Scholarship Organization.”


Orchid said the committee believes Combs should have handed over to them several thousand dollars, as is customary when an executive director leaves the position.


“Where did that all go?” Orchid asked.


Struggle over leadership


The problems appear to have started last year, following the 2008 pageant.


Last October, Combs, the program's executive director since 2005, moved with her husband, Dr. William Combs to Washington state.


Before leaving, she had recruited Lakeport business owners Tino and Kathy Gamber to succeed her in running the pageant.


Arnhym said he issued the Gambers a temporary franchise agreement in August, however, they “quickly withdrew” because they weren't happy with the organization's financial reports.


Combs alleged that the Gambers were “torpedoed” by others who she didn't identify.


Tino Gamber's take on the situation is markedly different from Combs'.


“Trish Combs left us with a bag of worms,” he said. “Because of that we decided to step down.”


Over the years the Gambers, who own the Lakeport clothing shop All About Me, have made numerous donations to the organization and the young contestants, including giving contestants everything from gowns to shoes.


They also put on a fashion show in 2008 to help cover the funds that the group would ordinarily have made from July 4 fireworks sales, which were canceled last year due to fire concerns, as Lake County News has reported.


Tino Gamber said they donated $5,000 to the organization as a result of the fashion show.


When Combs was preparing to leave, she sought the couple out to take over the organization's leadership. “She came to us and thought that we would be the right team to take it over,” Tino Gamber said, noting his wife was to act as executive director.


But Gamber said Combs wouldn't turn over the organization's account books to he and his wife, and said there were similar issues on other Bay Area pageants where Combs had been involved.


“Nobody could seem to get the records out of her,” he said.


The Gambers also had repeatedly demanded an accounting of where the $5,000 they donated to the organization went, but Tino Gamber said Combs has never given it to them.


He said he and his wife don't know that the organization ever got that money. Pageant officials reported that Combs' previous committee reported never hearing of the Gambers' donation.


“There's a lot of money that was donated, not just from us but from other people in the community,” Tino Gamber said.


After Combs relinquished the organization's control to the Gambers, they retained it for only a short time because they believed something was wrong.


When the Gambers stepped away, local pageant committee members contacted the state pageant's field director about the fact that there was no one to oversee the contestants.


State officials asked Sandra Orchid and Carla Butler if they were interested in leading the organization, and the Miss California Scholarship Program issued them a new franchise agreement on Dec. 10, 2008.


In interviews with Lake County News held in recent months, Combs claimed she was still the local pageant's executive director.


Combs' last franchise agreement was signed two years ago, and only was good through the end of August 2008, according to pageant documents.


“It's kind of sad for the pageant,” as well as for the community, which is skeptical now about supporting the group, Gamber said.


Although Combs maintains she's still executive director, pageant officials notified her last December, in writing, that a franchise agreement had been signed with the new group, headed by Orchid and Butler. At that time she also was told of the organization's concerns about her meeting the obligations to title holders.


When Combs refused to acknowledge the written notifications about the change in the franchise agreement, local pageant officials told her in person that same month.


With new leadership in place, local pageant officials began to realize there were problems. Sheriff's records show that they made a report alleging missing funds in January, a month after taking over.


Capt. James Bauman of the Lake County Sheriff's Office confirmed that the agency has investigated “allegations by current members of the organization's management, that as much as $50,000 in funds and property belonging to the organization is missing or unaccounted for and that Ms. Combs may be involved.”


Bauman said the case was sent to the District Attorney's Office for review in June to determine if the case even constitutes a criminal complaint.


“They may file a complaint for embezzlement, determine more follow-up investigation needs to be conducted for a criminal complaint, or determine the case is a civil matter and not a criminal one,” Bauman said.


District Attorney Jon Hopkins confirmed his office has the case.


“It has not been referred to us for prosecution,” he said. “It has been the request of the detective working the case to have one of our attorneys review the case and work with him on further investigation.”


In January, the same month as the local pageant made its reports to the sheriff, a property the Combses owned on Mission Rancheria Road went up for trustee sale as part of a foreclosure action.


Then, in September, a home they owned in Corinthian Bay also went up for a foreclosure trustee sale. According to county records, both properties appeared to have had significantly more owed on them than their original purchase prices several years previously.


The Gambers spoke to the Lake County Sheriff's Office, which has been conducting an investigation into the case. They were told that Trish Combs told investigators that the money is hers, she can do whatever she wants with it and doesn't owe anyone an accounting.


Combs said she's also been devastated by allegations that are being circulated about wrongdoing. “I've shed many tears, things I have heard.”


New committee hits roadblocks


Butler, whose daughter, Taylor-Paige, is this year's Miss Lake County, said the group is struggling financially, and it was a challenge to get funding to take them to this year's state competition, held in June.


Butler said the queen's closet, which was established to help support contestants of all income levels, is gone.


In addition to the $5,000 given to the organization last year by the Gambers, an anonymous donor also gave the group $5,000 last year after it voluntarily didn't sell fireworks due to fire concerns, she said.


She said there should have been $20,000 in the organization's account by now.


When they asked for accounting books, they were told there were none. “All the records are gone,” Butler said. “The bank accounts are gone.”


In addition to the local committee asking for all accounting books, funds and the queen's closet, the state pageant also has repeatedly asked Combs for a financial accounting.


Over the last two months, contestants have started to be paid as parents have sent registered letters and local and state pageant officials have pressed Combs on the payments. An accounting the current directors compiled showed that out of $7,000 in awards, $5,200 has been paid.


Combs also said she took out a newspaper ad to seek past contestants, and extended an Aug. 8 deadline for them to apply for their scholarships.


“These girls did what they were asked to do, period,” said Orchid, explaining that Combs finally was forced to come through with the funds.


A local appearance by Miss California also required months and repeated requests by pageant officials before Combs paid for it.


Then there are the concerns about the possibility that local funds went to support out-of-area pageants.


Combs placed $4,000 in deposit with Scholarship Associates, which is the holding organization for scholarships in connection with the Miss California Scholarship Program. But $1,500 of that funding reportedly was to go to pageants in San Jose, San Mateo and Redwood City with which Combs had been associated.


All of that money is now completely gone, said Orchid, and it appears local money went south to help the Bay Area pageants.


Representatives from those other organizations told Orchid that they had had to pay their own expenses because of also not getting funds they requested, and that they didn't know the source of the funds Combs put into their events.


Miss Redwood City-Miss San Mateo County Scholarship Organization did not respond to requests from Lake County News about working with Combs. The Miss San Jose Pageant wouldn't comment.


Contestants confused about the process


Some of the unfolding situation resembles misunderstandings and miscommunication.


Many of the contestants also were reportedly told by Combs that they had another year to apply for their funds, despite the fact that Combs had set an Aug. 8 deadline.


Jennifer Humble, 18, the first runner up in the 2008 pageant, received $1,200 in late August, which she needs to help pay for her schooling at Dominican University of San Rafael.


However, Orchid said Humble is still owed $1,000 from the previous year. Also owed $400 is Taylor-Paige Butler, this year's Miss Lake County.


Humble told Lake County News in an interview this past summer that the process to get the scholarship money was confusing for both her and her fellow contestants, who, at that point, didn't know what they needed to do to get their money and were “in the dark.”


Katie Murphy, 17, this year's Outstanding Teen, who had tried for months to get her money also was kept waiting for her $1,200 until Aug. 17, according to the group's accounting.


Orchid said when Murphy requested her scholarship from Combs, she was told to fill out a form, but Orchid maintains there isn't a form. Combs, however, said there is, and said she would send it to whoever requested it.


Murphy, whose sister Erin competed four years ago, said her parents had to pay for all of her expenses – from clothing to the hotel stay in Fresno for the state competition – out of pocket this year.


While her sister had the use of the queen's closet, Katie Murphy said this year's contestants didn't.


Murphy said she sent an e-mail to Combs asking her for shoes and shorts from the closet. She received no response, then Combs' son showed up with the wrong pair of shoes and some shorts.


At one point, Murphy – who had no evening gown for the competition – was loaned a dress by a woman at the competition. “People were kind of sympathetic to us,” Murphy said.


Saundra Combs, a former Miss Lake County, was once again in the Miss California Pageant this year, this time representing Culver City. Murphy said she saw Trish Combs at an orientation in relation to her daughter's presence in the competition.


“She came up to me when I was alone and said 'hello,' which I thought was bizarre,” said Murphy.


Murphy said Trish Combs offered to sponsor an ad page in the sponsor booklet, which officials confirmed that she did.


Tomorrow: Background on how the pageant runs, red flags arise and the committee works to rebuild.


E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Follow Lake County News on Twitter at http://twitter.com/LakeCoNews and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Lake-County-News/143156775604?ref=mf .

 

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