MARTINEZ -- The former president of a Danville swim club was charged Friday with eight felony counts of grand theft by embezzlement for allegedly taking more than $225,000 in team funds for his own personal and business use.
Danville resident Mark Eugene Thornton, 51, pleaded not guilty to the charges Friday afternoon, just a few hours after the Sycamore Stringrays Swim Team filed a civil lawsuit against him in Contra Costa County Superior Court. That suit alleges a breach of fiduciary duty, fraud and conversion.
Thornton denies taking any money improperly. He contends he always acted in the best interests of the swim club, which he left in better financial shape than when he became board president in late 2006, said Thornton's attorney, Dirk Manoukian.
"When he came in, the swim club had their nonprofit organization status suspended for failure to properly file tax returns. They didn't have bylaws; he wrote the bylaws," Manoukian said. "The board was aware of all the money that was being used by Mr. Thornton. It was all accounted for and on the swim club's ledgers."
The Danville police and the Contra Costa District Attorney's Office began investigating Thornton in February 2010 when swim club officials reported their suspicions. The investigation took three years because of the "mountains of records" involved, said deputy district attorney Steve Moawad.
Some of the embezzlement occurred at a time when the children were raising money for a new scoreboard, said attorney Debra Bogaards, who is representing the Stringrays in the civil suit.
"For the membership, it's very important to them to see Mr. Thornton brought to justice," Bogaards said. "Many of the families felt a huge sense of betrayal of their trust.
"Not only was Mr. Thornton the president of the swim club, some of his children were on the team," Bogaards said. "As a person, he was well-liked, and he was put in a position with a lot of authority over swim club funds."
Thornton was the board president of the 230-member swim club from November 2006 until he termed out in late 2009, about the same time Thornton's children resigned from the team. He paid back all but $15,000 to $18,000 of the embezzled money by the time he left the club, according to Moawad and Bogaards.
Bogaards said some of returned money came from the proceeds of Thornton's business, Duty Free Golf, which he started while he was swim club president with the help of investors, which included swim team parents.
Thornton was released on his own recognizance by a Martinez judge on Friday. He returns to court March 15 for the setting of the date for a preliminary hearing.
"Mr. Thornton has faith in the criminal justice system and has cooperated in the three-plus-year investigation every way he could," Manoukian said. "He's looking forward to an opportunity where the facts come out."
Contact Malaika Fraley at 925-234-1684. Follow her at Twitter.com/malaikafraley.