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Originally published Wednesday, May 22, 2013 at 9:05 PM

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Turmoil surrounds program to help prostitutes

A veteran King County Sheriff’s deputy has been placed on administrative leave after his work with a nonprofit drop-in center for women and girls involved in the sex trade became the subject of an internal investigation.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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A veteran King County sheriff’s deputy has been placed on administrative leave after his work with a drop-in center for women and girls involved in the sex trade became the subject of an internal investigation.

The deputy, Andy Conner, is the idea man behind The Genesis Project, a nonprofit drop-in shelter that opened in SeaTac in summer 2011 to provide a safe haven for women involved in the sex trade. Conner and sheriff’s Detectives Brian Taylor and Joel Banks pooled their money and raised funds to launch the center to offer girls and women a way out of prostitution.

The Seattle Times profiled The Genesis Project and the three men last year.

The investigation is apparently focused on the finances of The Genesis Project. Several longtime staff and board members have left the center in recent months, although it’s unclear whether the departures are related to the investigation.

It’s also unclear whether The Genesis Project remains in operation.

Taylor and Banks, who remain on duty, declined to comment, citing the internal investigation.

Conner’s wife, Laura, who briefly served as the center’s executive director but who now works as an executive assistant for The Genesis Project, confirmed Wednesday that her husband was placed on paid administrative leave about three weeks ago. She said he is “completely, completely innocent” of any financial misconduct and “every single penny is accounted for.”

Laura Conner spoke on her husband’s behalf since he is barred from talking because of the continuing investigation.

“They have not even told Andy what it’s about yet,” said Laura Conner. She declined to speak in detail on the advice of an attorney.

Sheriff’s Sgt. Cindi West confirmed Conner was placed on administrative leave but said her agency is not divulging “the focus or nature of the investigation.” She declined to say if it involves Conner’s work with The Genesis Project.

Bonita Cooper, the center’s former director, said she turned in her keys and left the nonprofit several months ago because of clashes with Laura Conner.

But Laura Conner said Cooper “didn’t leave, she was terminated.”

Cooper’s departure began an exodus of longtime staff and board members, including Taylor and Banks, who resigned in April, Cooper said.

Another board member, the Rev. Loran Litchy of New Life Church in Renton, also left the organization. He confirmed Wednesday he is no longer involved with The Genesis Project but declined further comment.

Cooper said Andy Conner has been responsible for the organization’s bookkeeping for the past year and had refused to explain expenditures or allow other board members to review the books.

But Laura Conner said that is not true and said The Genesis Project’s books are handled by a certified public accountant, whom she declined to name.

According to Cooper, The Genesis Project has been closed since the launch of the internal investigation, and law-enforcement officers who used to bring girls and women to the drop-in center are now taking them to a Seattle safe house operated by Real Escape from the Sex Trade (REST), another local nonprofit.

REST’s executive director could not be reached Wednesday.

But Laura Conner said the SeaTac drop-in center has never been busier, and officers can continue to bring girls and women to The Genesis Project. So far, 74 girls and women have received help there, she said.

Linda Smith, a former U.S. congresswoman who founded Shared Hope International to help sex-trafficking victims around the world, said her organization gave The Genesis Project a grant last year of $60,000 to $70,000 to help cover rent, utilities and some labor costs at the drop-in center.

Smith said she is not familiar with the details of all that has happened in recent weeks, but said The Genesis Project was about six weeks late in submitting a March report outlining how the Shared Hope funds were spent, she said.

Since then, Smith has not been notified of any problems with the organization’s compliance with Shared Hope’s strict accounting procedures.

“If there is an integrity or financial issue, I am notified and no, that didn’t happen,” she said.

Two audits of The Genesis Project’s finances are under way, said Smith, adding it is too soon to know if money is missing or if it’s all a matter of sloppy bookkeeping.

The audits “will show if this is a matter of good people working hard and moving too fast, or if something is wrong,” she said.

The creation of The Genesis Project resulted from the frustration Andy Conner, Taylor and Banks felt over the lack of services available for young victims of prostitution.

The three men pooled their money and appealed to churches to help them create The Genesis Project, a safe place where a cup of coffee and a hot shower can become a starting point for a girl or woman to chart her way out of prostitution.

Conner was named the 2012 Citizen of the Year by the Metropolitan League of King County in April 2012 for his work with The Genesis Project.

Smith said she is saddened by the apparent breakdown of Conner’s relationships with Taylor and Banks.

She would love to see The Genesis Project model — in which front-line officers treat prostituted women and girls as victims and offer them help escaping violent pimps and the dangers of the streets — replicated in other U.S. cities.

“I believe they have an amazing model and the men are amazing men,” she said.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.

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