Problems for Terence "Terry" Chen, the board chairman for the Chinese Heritage Foundation of Utah, are intensifying as an investigation builds into alleged financial mismanagement for his role in developing a cultural gate in West Valley City.
The Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office confirmed Wednesday that there is an investigation into the activities of Chen, who has overseen donations to West Valley City's Chinese Heritage Gate. The 48-foot-long gate, which has been built with private donations, is designed to recognize the friendship between sister cities West Valley City and Nantou, Taiwan. The Sept. 29 completion date a day for which a community celebration is planned will mark the 12th anniversary of the cities' partnership.
But as the ceremony for the gate's dedication looms, questions continue about whether Chen mishandled money from donors during the project's construction.
Earlier this month, furious donors who contributed money for the gate showed up at a West Valley City Council accusing Chen of failing to provide a budget and ledger for the project's funding. Several people alleged they didn't know where their money went after they gave it to Chen and wonder if their donations truly went to fund the gate.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill on Wednesday confirmed residents contacted his office with concerns about whether Chen has properly handled money raised to fund the gate. Gill said there is an investigation into those claims.
"There has been some issues that they have been communicating to us," Gill said, adding that he could not comment further.
The Chinese Heritage Foundation of Utah is also under investigation by the Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing, the agency confirmed Wednesday. The CHFU hasn't filed an application for a charitable-solicitation permit, required by state law, according to the Division of Consumer Protection.
Chen, meanwhile, denies the allegations against him and has retained well-known criminal defense attorney Greg Skordas to represent him.
The controversy has divided Chen from former friends who initially supported the retired West Valley City police sergeant in his duties overseeing the gate project.
The idea for the gate began in 2002, when fundraising for what was to be an estimated $200,000 project started, said Woody Fang, who chaired the Chinese Heritage Foundation of Utah that year.
Fang oversaw fundraising for the gate for the next eight years, until he resigned from his position because of his age and poor eyesight, he said in a recent interview. Chen replaced Fang and took over fundraising efforts for the project in 2010, Fang said.
A new brigade of board members started expressing concerns about the project's finances after Chen took on the leadership role, Fang said. Accounting records were sparse and donor lists were disorganized, he said.
Fang donated about $100,000 to the foundation for the project, he said. He was surprised when Chen came to him recently asking for more money, telling Fang that the foundation was almost $40,000 short to complete the project despite the fact that the entire project was supposed to cost $200,000 total.
Fang believed more than enough money had been raised and asked Chen to see the books and accounting of why the foundation was short for the project. Fang saw the books and more than 60 donors, but struggled to make sense of the documents. He advised Chen to hire an accountant to organize expenditures into something more readable.
Fang said he still hasn't received the answers he seeks from Chen.
Chen, however, has now turned over all of the foundation's records to the District Attorney's Office and an accountant as part of complying with the current investigation, Skordas said. He praised his client's work in the Chinese community, including his efforts leading the foundation.
"He has not been compensated for this; it has been all volunteer," said Skordas, adding his client also works as a security guard at the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City.
West Valley City officials said they had been informed that friction between Chen and his detractors had been resolved after the heated council meeting earlier this month. West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder said he believes everything with Chen is "on the up and up."
"They are happy now and we are all excited for the big kickoff," Winder said Wednesday of Chen and his critics.
Fang disagrees and said controversy surrounding the project has soured the upcoming celebration.
"This is the only very large project in the Chinese community to build this gate," Fang said. "It is a slap in the face for the Chinese community."
The Chinese Heritage Friendship Gate: A Timeline
2000: West Valley City and Nantou, Taiwan, sign a sister city agreement and talk about building a Chinese gate in West Valley City.
June 2003: The Utah Cultural Celebration Center opens and the area is named as a possible site for gate. West Valley Sister City Committee is also filed with the IRS as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. The committee would later become defunct after failing to file tax returns for three years in a row. It was later moved under the umbrella of the city's Cultural Arts Board.
2002-2012: Members of the local Chinese community organize the Chinese Heritage Foundation of Utah in 2002, led by local community leader Terence "Terry" Chen. More than $200,000 was raised from donors in Utah and Taiwan.
2011: West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder and Mayor Zu Shuhua of Nantou, Taiwan both agree to finish the gate on the 12th anniversary of the sister city relationship.
July 2011: Ground broken on the Chinese Heritage Friendship Gate at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center at 1355 W. 3100 South.
July 2012: The gate, built in Taiwan, is shipped to Utah.
August 2012: Re-construction of the gate in Utah by local company YAMAY General Contracting, Inc.
Sept. 10, 2012: Gate structure to be completed.
Sept. 29, 2012: Chinese Heritage Gate Celebration.
Source: Utah Cultural Celebration Center