Jon Tevlin
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Michelle Brown was a single mother of three when she walked into Community Action of Minneapolis to get some help to pay her heating bills. She told one of the CAM employees that she had recently been laid off from her job at a bank.

“I want you to meet someone,” the employee told Brown.

Brown was introduced to the public agency’s CFO and then to the CEO, William Davis. They offered Brown a job on the spot.

“Every day it was exciting to go to work and see you were making a difference in people’s lives,” Brown said. “I had great admiration for Mr. Davis — at first.”

On Friday, however, Brown was one of the employees to testify in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis against Davis, who was sentenced to four years in prison after pleading guilty to 16 counts of fraud. Authorities say Davis stole more than $800,000 from CAM’s coffers and spent it on luxuries, trips and five girlfriends.

As Davis was sentenced, Brown cried in a front seat of the courtroom.

“If you opened the dictionary to ‘narcissist,’ there should be a picture of Mr. Davis,” Brown said after the sentencing. “He was an egotistical glutton.”

Davis and his attorney attempted to paint him as a beacon of society who simply went astray, and in court documents downplayed the amount stolen as “a small portion” of CAM’s budget.

“Mr. Davis believed at the time that he was entitled to the benefits he took and did not conceal his activity because he thought it was justified,” attorney Susan Gaertner wrote to the judge. In other words, Davis should get a break because he stole brazenly instead of covertly.

Privileged people who get caught committing crimes always beg for leniency, claiming the loss of their position should be enough, and Davis didn’t disappoint. He cited a litany of accomplishments in court documents and letters of support from “outstanding members of the community” while asking that his sentence be limited to one year and one day.

Davis was unemotional as he read a statement accepting responsibility. He failed to mention that he put his own son, Jordan Davis, behind bars by continuing to illegally pay him for a no-show job.

U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz wasn’t buying any of it. In his career as a judge, he said, “I do not recall anyone who was more audacious than Mr. Davis.”

Talk about audacious, Davis boasted in court documents of casting an electoral vote for Minnesota at a Democratic National Convention, a trip that was funded from money he stole from CAM.

“Mr. Davis had no reason to steal,” Schiltz added. Davis had an “exorbitant salary” working for a group designed to help the poor. As Schiltz ticked off a long list of benefits and unjustified trips, people in the courtroom shook their heads in dismay. The CEO’s job “was as much about golf” as it was about ending poverty, Schiltz said.

“Stealing became a way of life for Mr. Davis,” Schiltz said. But Davis was not stealing from a rich entity, “he was stealing from the poorest of the poor.”

William Davis’ theft from CAM did not begin when the government began to pull records, Kimberly Svendsen of the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. She said Davis “surrounded himself with board members who thought he walked on water.”

Another former CAM employee, Bonnie Johnson, worked there for 30 years.

“All the good work we did to deliver services was wiped out,” she said in court. Johnson said her boss’ theft likely tainted the work of other nonprofits and cost them donations because people think they all “spend money the same way.”

Johnson called the work environment under Davis “horrible” and said that after an FBI raid, Davis referred to employees as “collateral damage.”

“I’m not collateral damage, I’m a person,” said Johnson, one of 52 employees to lose their jobs when the program was closed.

Leaving the courthouse, Brown expressed joy for the sentence and for a son who was coming home for Mother’s Day.

“I’m walking on sunshine,” Brown said. “Hallelujah.”

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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