Leading Chamber member resigns, questions remain about her past

by Kathryn Dunn | editor@claremont-courier.com and Peter Weinberger | pweinberger@claremont-courier.com

In small towns like Claremont, connections are everything. Who you know and something as inconsequential as a Facebook friend list, who tags you in their pictures or attendance to a fundraiser can become part of your resumé.

When Nicole Lanni, owner of Feeling Groovy Wellness and Café, arrived to Claremont in 2017 with her rainbow-colored sheep and laidback disposition, influential locals took notice.

She promptly joined the Claremont Chamber of Commerce and, just as swiftly, established herself as a main player. As Ms. Lanni quickly rose through the ranks to chair-elect of the executive committee, so did her popularity with community leaders like city councilmember Ed Reece, Ophelia’s Jump owner Beatrice Casagran and her husband Randy Lopez, executive director of the Chamber.

When she abruptly resigned as chair-elect of the executive committee last week after conflicts arose about finances—she subsequently closed her wellness spa—the Chamber board responded.

An email went out to all Chamber members Thursday, February 27, detailing what the board called “rumors” about Ms. Lanni. The email—signed by Mr. Lopez, executive director; Emily Moultrie, chairperson; Bruno Windegger, treasurer; and Michael Reis, member at large—aimed to ensure members that Ms. Lanni had no access to funds.

“We are communicating this information to our members in response to rumors that have been circulated that Ms. Lanni might have engaged in improper dealings with Chamber funds while in her position as chair of the Village Venture Committee,” the email read. “We want to make clear that these rumors are completely unfounded and that Ms. Lanni has never had signatory power or access to Chamber accounts or funds.”

The communication was sent after it was learned Ms. Lanni had defaulted on a loan given to her by a fellow Chamber member.

A CHRISTMAS LOAN

A few days before Christmas, Ms. Lanni contacted Sara Antonucci through Facebook messenger to ask if she knew anyone who did hard cash loans. Ms. Antonucci said her partner, Vadim Sthil, does have his broker’s license, but he doesn’t normally do loans. Since she had been a customer of Feeling Groovy and had worked closely with Ms. Lanni at the Chamber, the couple agreed to help.

“She said she needed it for payroll—I wanted the kids to get paid at Christmas,” Ms. Antonucci told the COURIER. “The day we went to give her the loan on Christmas Eve, she said she was going to Ed Reece’s house for Christmas first then to Randy’s house for after. I saw somebody that is good friends with city government officials and the executive director; you’d think she’s trustworthy.”

A promissory note, which Ms. Lanni provided to the couple by email, set the terms—a $5,000 loan at 15 percent interest to be paid back in 30 days or January 24. Mr. Shtil and Ms. Antonucci had it reviewed by their attorney and the deal was completed.

“My lawyer, who has also met her, even said, ‘You’re not going to get ripped off by the board chair of the Chamber of Commerce,’” Ms. Antonucci said.

On January 24, Ms. Antonucci and three Chamber members had a girls’ day at the salt room at Feeling Groovy and she was hoping to talk to Ms. Lanni, but she wasn’t there.

“We called Feeling Groovy many times over the month,” Ms. Antonucci said. “The employees always said she wasn’t there.”

After several attempts to reach her by email, Ms. Antonucci and Mr. Shtil sent eight letters to three different addresses—at the Claremont store, at the Feeling Groovy Ranch in Trinity County and Ms. Lanni’s Corona home.

The first three demand letters were sent by certified mail, but Ms. Antonucci said they were all rejected because no one would sign for them. The letters were all re-sent by priority mail, she said.

After getting no response, the couple sent two more letters to the Corona home address and the Claremont store.

“We wanted to give her one more chance as a last resort, just asking her to contact us to please talk,” Ms. Antonucci said.

After a full month of trying to locate Ms. Lanni, they gave up. On February 29, Ms. Lanni was served with the lawsuit at her Foothill Boulevard store.

Ms. Lanni said she wanted to pay them back, but didn’t have their phone number. She also said she had come down with the flu and a separate loan they were counting on didn’t come through, even though it had been pre-approved.

Further, Ms. Lanni said she had looked for Ms. Antonucci at several Chamber events to discuss an extension, but she could never find her.

“I’m angry that Sara Joe opened this can of worms,” Ms. Lanni said. “Had I had a phone number for Vadim and we could sit down and talk about this, we wouldn’t be here today. We had every intention of paying them. Had we been able to get a hold of Vadim, this could have been easily resolved.”

A court date on this case is scheduled for March 24.

Mr. Lopez told the COURIER he has been as surprised as anyone as details have been uncovered.

“A lot of what you’re saying is the first time I’ve heard it,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday. “I know nothing about that. I spoke to Sara Joe about other Chamber issues, but never dealt with her about finances, or with anyone else.”

THE CHAMBER CONNECTION

As news broke about the lawsuit among some of the Chamber’s most active members, questions arose about how much access members are given to the nonprofit’s bank account. Ms. Lanni said when she became chair-elect, she personally asked Mr. Lopez and Ms. Moultrie to not be added as a signatory on the account.

People in the cannabis industry are watched very closely, Ms. Lanni said, and she didn’t want to put the Chamber at risk.

Mr. Windegger, who has served as treasurer for the Chamber since June, told the COURIER only the board chair and Chamber executive director are included as signatories on the bank account, and that Ms. Lanni would not have been given access in her role as chair-elect.

“It’s Randy and Emily only,” he said. “That’s the truth. I don’t think you’re going to hear otherwise.”

Ms. Lanni said the rumors about her involvement in Chamber finances has been devastating to her.

“Sara started that and it broke my heart. I’ve never touched money at the Chamber. I’ve given the Chamber thousands, but I’ve never touched anything,” she said. “The only thing I did was to produce the best Village Venture they’ve ever had.”

A public records request made by the COURIER to the city of Claremont on Tuesday, February 25 for the financial records for the 2017 through 2019 Village Venture has not yet been fulfilled.

Exactly how Chamber members become heads of committees and the executive board is an organic process. According to Mr. Lopez, the Chamber operates similar to most nonprofits.

“She wasn’t a paid position, which would have been a very different process of vetting,” he said. “We make sure they are members of good standing, but we don’t look at any of that background. The Chamber has never done that.”

Mr. Lopez assures the community there would never be an opportunity for a board member to access Chamber funds. He said the goal is what it’s always been—to stay solvent and remain a financially strong organization.

“For the year or so I’ve been here, it’s just making sure everybody knows what’s going on. And make sure the board is aware of what I do. My job is to keep this place relevant and make it last another 100 years,” Mr. Lopez said.

He emphasized that Mr. Windegger oversees the books, which are presented on a monthly basis and are shared with the financial committee. He wants to ensure that the board is made up of a mix of community members, each representing various types of businesses.

“What’s going on with this story is a horrible thing and whatever needs to be done, needs to be done,” Mr. Lopez said. “I have confidence that we have a board that is reviewing everything. I know they will handle it well.”

As far as his friendship with Ms. Lanni, Mr. Lopez said she definitely volunteered a lot, helped with many events and supported organizations in the community with donations of food, but the friendship didn’t fast-track Ms. Lanni’s position on the board.

“We are friends like I’m friends with other Chamber members,” he said. “I didn’t spend Christmas with her. Maybe over the holidays, but all the Chamber members are friends. As things were uncovered, it came as a big surprise.”

All of this has brought to light a puzzling legal history with respect to Ms. Lanni’s business dealings, including a handful of judgments against Ms. Lanni and her husband Sam Lanni.

Part two coming Saturday

The next installment we address Ms. Lanni’s business history and update this evolving story online Saturday, and in the print edition next Friday, March 13.

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