The Days Inn on Everett Mall Way, where The Hand Up Project was running a shelter program. Snohomish County purchased the hotel and plans to convert it into emergency housing. (Ryan Berry / The Herald) 
The Days Inn on Everett Mall Way, which Snohomish County is set to purchase and convert into emergency housing, is seen Monday, Aug. 8, 2022, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

The Days Inn on Everett Mall Way, where The Hand Up Project was running a shelter program. Snohomish County purchased the hotel and plans to convert it into emergency housing. (Ryan Berry / The Herald) The Days Inn on Everett Mall Way, which Snohomish County is set to purchase and convert into emergency housing, is seen Monday, Aug. 8, 2022, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Amid Lynnwood nonprofit’s tumult, Hand Up Project leader charged with theft

After founder Robert Smiley was ousted amid fraud allegations, Sonny Behrends served as chief administrator of the Hand Up Project.

LYNNWOOD — Another former leader of a much-lauded nonprofit aimed at helping homeless people in Snohomish County has been accused of theft.

Clinton “Sonny” Behrends, 37, served as chief administrative officer of The Hand Up Project, based near Lynnwood, after the organization ousted founder Robert Smiley amid an investigation into potential fraud.

On Monday, Behrends was arraigned in King County Superior Court on three felony allegations from the state Office of the Insurance Commissioner, dating back over five years: two counts of first-degree identity theft and one count of first-degree theft. In an interview Monday, Behrends said he had resigned from the nonprofit’s board.

“I vehemently deny all the allegations and am extremely disappointed at the Insurance Commissioner’s defamatory actions,” he said in a written statement released Tuesday through his attorney, Robert Dunphy. “This is not how the justice system is supposed to work.”

The Hand Up Project had served as a high-profile nonprofit aimed at helping Snohomish County residents struggling with homelessness and substance use disorder. Local leaders had lavished praise on the organization, known for hiring people recovering from drug addiction to help others in similar situations.

Hand Up reported getting more than 1,000 people into drug treatment and disposing more than 10,000 needles in encampment cleanups. It has also managed emergency shelter motel rooms in Everett, providing case managers and connecting people with long-term housing.

Robert Smiley, the founder of the Hand Up Project, illustrates how many needles were picked up over one weekend at a homeless camp south of Everett in March, 2017. In 2023 the organization ousted Smiley amid an investigation into potential fraud. (Caleb Hutton / The Herald)

Robert Smiley, the founder of the Hand Up Project, illustrates how many needles were picked up over one weekend at a homeless camp south of Everett in March, 2017. In 2023 the organization ousted Smiley amid an investigation into potential fraud. (Caleb Hutton / The Herald)

But Smiley, the organization’s outspoken founder, was pushed out earlier this year amid claims he pocketed thousands of dollars in donations meant for Hand Up. The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office criminal investigation into Smiley was inactive this week, a spokesperson said.

Smiley said the nonprofit got too big for him to handle.

“When I started the foundation, it was about people, not money,” he said in an interview Tuesday.

Smiley blamed Behrends for how the organization has fallen from grace. He called bringing Behrends in “the worst mistake of my life.”

“Sonny is a snake,” he said. “I didn’t realize it.”

After Smiley left, numerous red flags were unearthed from prior years at the nonprofit.

‘Advocates Recovery Services’

In just eight days in May 2022, two clients died in hotel rooms at the organization’s county-funded shelter program at the Days Inn on Everett Mall Way.

Both died of acute methamphetamine intoxication, the county medical examiner’s office determined.

The hotel project was supposed to house people experiencing homelessness while offering them services, such as treatment for mental illnesses and substance use disorder, before finding them more permanent housing.

Later in May 2022, the Snohomish County Regional Drug Task Force arrested a Shoreline man who authorities suspected of trafficking drugs through a room at the Days Inn. Police found him with more than 2,000 counterfeit pills containing fentanyl, records show. Earlier this year, the suspect was sentenced to three years in prison after pleading guilty to several felonies.

Meanwhile, Snohomish County had been paying millions to the organization to run the emergency shelter program.

The shelter formerly housed in the Days Inn on Everett Mall Way moved last June to the Motel 6 on 128th Street SW. The county has since bought the Days Inn to eventually turn into emergency housing, but it was reported the motel was contaminated by meth.

The county’s funding for the nonprofit’s shelter program ran out at the end of August, thus ending the project, county spokesperson Kent Patton said Tuesday.

In the fallout of these myriad controversies, the organization has changed its name to Advocates Recovery Services.

But the organization still appears to be doing similar work. In August, for example, the Verdant Health Commission in south Snohomish County awarded the organization $180,000 in grant money.

‘Insurance Fraud Most Wanted’

The criminal allegations against Behrends date to before he was involved with Hand Up, however. They go back to when he was a Bothell-based attorney.

In 2017, a man injured in a car crash hired Behrends to represent him in an insurance case. USAA reportedly settled the case for $150,000 in July 2018, the man reportedly later learned.

But Behrends never notified the client of the settlement, instead transferring the money to a personal bank account, according to court papers filed by an investigator from the state Office of the Insurance Commissioner. The signatures of both the man and his wife were on the settlement paperwork, the investigator wrote, despite the man reporting he never signed the agreement.

After the client badgered Behrends, the attorney finally agreed to give him $6,000 in July 2020, two years after the settlement was finalized. Behrends claimed the rest of the settlement money covered legal fees, according to the charges filed in August. However, the man’s agreement with Behrends had noted the attorney would take just one-third of any settlement.

The client told Behrends that amount was unacceptable, so Behrends offered to give another $50,000, according to court documents. The client declined the offer.

In 2021, the man reached out to the insurance commissioner for help. The agency investigated, leading to the new criminal charges filed against Behrends.

This was part of a string of cases where Behrends agreed to settlements without his client’s knowledge or agreed to represent them and took their money without providing adequate representation, according to allegations from the state bar association.

Behrends had been practicing law in Washington since 2012. He resigned from the bar association in lieu of discipline in 2020 and agreed to pay nearly $150,000 in restitution to eight clients.

Last month, state Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler added Behrends to his Insurance Fraud Most Wanted List after the defendant didn’t appear at his initial August arraignment in King County. A judge issued a bench warrant for his arrest.

“I recently learned of charges that were filed against me involving allegations from over 5 years ago, well before my association with Advocates Recovery Services,” Behrends said in his statement Tuesday. “Unfortunately, notice was sent to incorrect addresses that were years old, despite having my current address. I was not even aware of the hearing.”

He said Smiley had texted to alert him of the charges.

“I look forward to proving my innocence in the coming months, ” Behrends said. “However, I have immediately and voluntarily stepped down as President of Advocates Recovery Services. I did this because a group of individuals have made it their mission to falsely malign the organization. Advocates, and the wonderful people who work there, do vital and exceptional work caring for the suffering in Snohomish County.”

Jake Goldstein-Street: 425-339-3439; jake.goldstein-street@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.

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