Tai Sunnanon, a West Hollywood resident who serves as chair of the city’s Public Facilities Commission, has been active in local Democratic Party affairs and who promotes himself as an advocate for social causes, is alleged to have embezzled nearly $50,000 from the California Independent Cities Association.
CICA is a non-profit organization made up of nearly 40 cities in the Southern California area that focuses on public safety, education, infrastructure, legislative advocacy, intergovernmental relationships and other issues that transcend the boundaries of its member cities. The cities that are among its members include Beverly Hills, Culver City, Glendale, Long Beach, Los Angeles, and Santa Monica.
In a complaint filed on Feb. 5 at the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Station, CICA alleges that the 41-year-old Sunnanon embezzled $47,937 from the organization where he worked under contract as executive director from June 2017 to September 2019. According to the complaint, a copy of which was obtained by the author of this story, Sunnanon took control of a payment processing platform through which CICA received money for such things as event tickets and had those payments directed to his personal Chase Bank account.
An audit of the payment processing transactions by Nils Nehrenheim, CICA vice president and a Redondo Beach City Council member, found that money was moved to Sunnanon’s personal bank account on 27 occasions from March 5, 2019, to Nov. 21, 2019. The amount of the transfers ranged from $39 to $5,585.
According to the complaint, Nehrenheim first noticed in November 2019 that payments for six of the tickets sold for CICA’s 2019 Winter Seminar event, each costing $600, weren’t appearing in the CICA bank account. Nehrenheim said he asked Sunnanon about those payments and then suddenly discovered that the CICA payment processing system was shut down. He reached out to Stripe, operator of the system, which agreed to re-activate the system. Nehrenheim reported that Sunnanon claimed that his accountant had accidentally misdirected the payments to Sunnanon’s personal bank account. Nehrenheim questioned why Sunnanon’s accountant would have had access to the CICA account.
In the Sheriff’s Department report, Nehrenheim says Sunnanon agreed to repay the money from the six event tickets and sent CICA a check in the amount of $2,915 from the Strategic Insights Group, a non-profit organization founded by Sunnanon. However, Nehrenheim noted, that $2,915 amount was less than the $3,494 that Stripe was supposed to have transferred to the CICA account after deducting $106 in transaction fees.
Nehrenheim told the Sheriff’s Department that while Sunnanon resigned as CICA’s executive director on Sept. 26, 2019, he volunteered to continue working with the organization until it transitioned to a new director, and Nehrenheim, then the organization’s treasurer, wasn’t granted control of the Stripe account until March 2020.
On March 13, 2020, CICA’s attorney sent Sunnanon an email demanding payment of the nearly $45,000 in remaining money that had been diverted to Sunnanon’s personal bank account. Sunnanon “responded to the email stating he was on a mission with the United States Air Force without access to email or phone,” says the Sheriff’s Department report. However, the report notes that Sunnanon posted announcements online about an upcoming webinar on March 26, 2020, an indication that he wasn’t on active duty.
A search of a U.S. Department of Defense database shows that since March 18, 2020, Sunnanon has only been on active duty from May 25, 2020 to Sept. 19, 2020. CICA’s attorney sent certified copies of the payment demand letter on April 9 and April 13 to Sunnanon’s mailing address on Havenhurst Drive, which also is listed as the address of his Strategic Insights Group.
When WEHOville contacted Sunnanon on Sunday night asking for his response to the allegation, Sunnanon said this is the first time he had heard about it. He said he had not received the email message from CICA’s attorney or the certified copies of the letters demanding he repay the money diverted to his personal bank account.
Later on Sunday, WEHOville again spoke with Sunnanon who insisted he was “being framed” and the situation was “a setup.”
Just prior to publication, Sunnanon’s lawyer contacted WEHOville with the following statement:
“Mr. Sunnanon, a man who has spent his entire career fighting for social justice, vehemently denies these allegations. We welcome a thorough investigation into these false claims. We believe such an investigation will vindicate him completely,” said attorney Michael Simmrin of the Burbank-based Simmrin Law Group.
The complaint by CICA has been turned over to the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department’s Fraud and Cyber Crimes Bureau.
Sunnanon’s Strategic Insights Group originally was registered with the state of California in 2015 as a 501 c3 (non-profit) organization under the name “si3 consulting group.” Its name was changed in April 2019 to Strategic Insights Group, which state records show also is registered as a non-profit, although Sunnanon told WEHOville that is not correct.
According to state documents, the SIG’s registration with the California Secretary of State now has been suspended by the state Franchise Tax Board, which Sunnanon said he is unaware of. While both SIG and si3 consulting group were organized as non-profits, a search of the Internal Revenue Service database shows neither of the organizations has made federal tax filings required of non-profit organizations.
Through SIG, Sunnanon also has worked on various political campaigns. One was the Yes on Measure B campaign in Burbank in 2016, which was an effort to pave the way for construction of a new terminal at Hollywood Burbank Airport. Sunnanon filed a complaint with the state Fair Political Practices Commission alleging that Save Burbank Neighborhoods, a resident group opposing Measure B, was a campaign committee and did not register as one. The FPPC rejected his claim, saying there was no evidence that the group received $2,000 or more in campaign donations during a calendar year, which would have required it to register.
Sunnanon also managed the successful No on Measure N campaign in Glendale in 2016, which was funded by developers such as Rick Caruso and city vendors. The No on Measure N campaign was an effort to block passage of a ballot measure that would have repealed a city tax that residents paid on their utility bills. Supporters of Measure N argued that revenue from that tax was used to pay exorbitantly high wages to city officials.
For the Social Good, another organization created by Sunnanon in October 2015 (although not as a non-profit), was dissolved in January 2017 after a controversy over its use of WeHo’s French Market building at 7985 Santa Monica Blvd. as office space for “socially conscious” businesses. Sunnanon’s For the Social Good entered into a contract with Faring, the developer that owns the property, under which Faring allowed the non-profit to use office space in the building for community organizations until Faring finally obtained the necessary approvals to convert the French Market into office space and a restaurant and bar.
Non-profit tenants at the French Market under this For the Social Good plan included the Lavender Effect, an organization formed to chronicle LGBT history; the Dance Resource Center; the Southeast European Film Festival; the Los Angeles Volleyball Association, and Mercy for Animals. Other for-profit tenants include GTM, a visa and passport agency; EKLaw, a legal firm; Glam Production Consulting, and West Hollywood Media Company, then publisher of WEHOville and West Hollywood Magazine.
Those organizations paid rents well under the market rate and paid For the Social Good an additional $150 a month to cover the costs of workshops, education programs and training events. However, Sunnanon did not provide those services and Faring, which was said to have paid $14,000 a month for taxes, maintenance, utilities and security for the property, did not receive any of the rent money paid by the tenants to For the Social Good. Just a few months after the opening of the For the Social Good space, Sunnannon said he was handing it back to Faring, which planned to increase the rents sharply. Faring, facing complaints from the tenants, agreed to let them remain in the space until August 2017 with no increase in their rents.
While working as executive director of the California Independent Cities Association, Sunnanon also was involved in a dispute with Vivian Romero, a member of the City Council of Montebello, a CICA member. Sunnanon asked a judge to issue a restraining order against Romero, who he said had shoved him and called him a liar and a thief at a CICA conference in Santa Barbara in January 2018. Romero claimed that Sunnanon had failed to pay Shannon Calland, her romantic partner, who had been hired by Strategic Insights Group to work as a consultant. A judge said he didn’t believe that calling Sunnanon a liar and thief warranted issuing a restraining order, and he ordered Sunnanon to pay $3,000 to Romero to cover legal costs associated with Sunnanon’s claim.
On his social media platforms, Sunnanon calls out his work for the Peace Corps, for which he was acknowledged in March 2020 with a “40 Under 40 Leadership Award.” He also says that he was the founder in 1996 of California WISH (Working in Support of the Homeless) and in 2006 of SeaVit, an organization in Southeast Asia created with the support of the government of the Philippines to extract vitamins from oysters to address vitamin deficienty among South East Asian children. A search of IRS and State of California business registration databases turns up no mention of California WISH while SeaVit is not registered in California or the Philippines.
Sunnanon’s latest venture is Social Good Industries LLC, which was registered with the State of California in April 2020. Social Good Industries sells an antibacterial handwipe and says that 10% of the revenue it receives will go to charitable causes, with Tulane University listed as one. According to its website https://www.walkingsoap.com, Sunnanon and David Szabo, his business partner and husband, were inspired to create the product in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The website says the handwipe, which is a benzalkonium chloride cloth, is listed with the Federal Food & Drug Administration. However, on its website at http://bit.ly/2PiJ6Ac, the FDA says it has not determined whether the Walking Soap product complies with its safety standards.
Sunnanon recently was elected as a delegate to the California Democratic Party representing District 50. He ran on the “Grassroots Slate” and got the endorsements of the late Ivy Bottini, Beverly Hills City Councilmember John Mirisch, West Hollywood Mayor Lindsey Horvath and City Councilmember John Erickson, LA County Assessor Jeffrey Prang, and state Assemblymember Richard Bloom.
Since 2017, Sunnanon has been an at-large member of the West Hollywood Public Facilities Commission, which means he was endorsed by a majority of the City Council members.