Ex-Erie trustee arrested; Police: Former CEO swindled hopeful adoptive parents

Date: 2008-02-28

Daily Camera, The (Boulder, CO)
Author: Heath Urie Camera Staff Writer

The CEO of a defunct Boulder-based international adoption agency has been arrested on suspicion of stealing tens of thousands of dollars from hopeful adoptive families.

Lisa Novak, a 48-year-old former Erie trustee, faces felony charges that she stole more than $20,000 from one couple and between $500 and $15,000 from another family. Detectives also allege Novak wrote a bad check to a Guatemalan adoption agency.

Novak, an attorney, was arrested late Wednesday at her Erie home and was released from the Boulder County Jail on Thursday morning on a $10,000 bond, officials said. She is due in court April 4.

According to an affidavit for Novak's arrest, a Boulder couple who successfully adopted a boy and were hoping to adopt a girl from Guatemala said they were swindled out of more than $25,000 by Novak's Claar Foundation. Jaspal and Linda Singh told police they were prevented from adopting the girl after Novak misfiled paperwork and then refused to refund their money.

An attorney representing the orphanage also filed a police report with Guatemalan authorities requesting a warrant for Novak's arrest and extradition to Guatemala City for allegedly mailing the agency a bad check for $12,500 in December, the affidavit states.

Police also say Novak failed to refund $13,100 of an adoption referral fee paid last year by Boulder resident Carol Kuzdek, who won an $18,700 judgment against Novak after she filed a lawsuit alleging the Claar Foundation failed to return her fees for an adoption in Guatemala that also never happened.

Kuzdek on Thursday said she thinks Novak deserved to be arrested, but she is sad for Novak's three biological and three adopted children.

"It's just so sad for them," Kuzdek said. "At the same time, of course, it's probably something that should have happened a long time ago."

Boulder detectives continue to investigate other possible victims, police spokeswoman Sarah Huntley said Thursday.

"We have enough evidence to move forward to other families that have come forward," Huntley said.

Boulder police began investigating the business practices of the Claar Foundation after it closed its doors in February in the face of mounting complaints and lawsuits.

Operating under several names, the Claar Foundation -- started by Novak and her husband, Martin Claar -- has been sued several times over its financial dealings. Business records show Novak and Claar operated more than 10 businesses from an office located at 4141 Arapahoe Ave.

The Camera previously detailed the many corporations Novak and Claar operated in Boulder since about 2002, including an array of nonprofit and for-profit adoption companies.

In November 2007, Denver resident Sheri Eisert -- an associate professor at the University of Colorado's Health Sciences Center -- won a $1,350 judgment against Novak and the Claar Foundation for post-adoption home visits and reports that she said were never completed by the company. On Thursday, she said she's happy to see Novak arrested.

"You see people in the world who are dishonest and they never get caught or are never found out because they're so good at it," Eisert said. "I hope the justice system follows through and she cannot do business again."

Contacted Thursday, Claar and Novak declined to comment about the case.

Novak in February said the claims against her and the company have "no validity," and she later wrote a letter to the Camera that in part said, "There is nothing illegal in owning or operating more than one company" or "about closing a business that is not financially viable."

She said clients were given the option to transfer to another agency before her business closed and that the "closing of a business as emotional as adoptions causes an extreme emotional reaction."

In 2004, Boulder Women's Magazine published an article about Novak titled "Lisa Novak, champion for children around the world."

Novak told the magazine -- which is owned by Prairie Mountain Publishing, which publishes the Camera -- that she grew up outside Washington, D.C., and later moved to Boulder from Virginia. She said she had a "finance background," and her previous law practice included concentration on "World Bank work, doing various things related to international development and construction projects."

All 26 international adoption agencies licensed by the state are in the middle of a 60-day administrative review into "child safety and financial practices" by the Colorado Department of Human Services. The department launched its own investigation after the recent closure of several agencies across the state, including the Claar Foundation.

Novak is the second former Erie trustee arrested on suspicion of alleged financial impropriety since 2006.

In October, former trustee Jennifer Lynn Engelbrecht, 40, was sentenced to serve two years of work release at the Boulder County Jail and 20 years of probation after she pleaded guilty to 17 felonies following her arrest on suspicion of theft, forgery and impersonation.

She wrote herself checks, used credit cards belonging to Moonstone Construction -- which she worked for as a bookkeeper -- and opened lines of credit without her employer's knowledge beginning in January 2000.

Tracking Novak

Last we knew: Boulder police were investigating allegations that Lisa Novak and the Claar Foundation, her now-defunct international adoption agency, swindled some hopeful families out of adoption-related fees.

Latest: Police arrested Novak on Wednesday on suspicion that she stole thousands from clients and committed check fraud.

Next: Novak is due in court April 4.

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