Back to Basics : Scott Mather Is Shedding Mantle of Disgrace to Fight Again for Homeless

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He was quietly on his way to becoming one of the state's leading crusaders for the poor.

He was a man committed to alleviating homelessness who was also creative and articulate, who could persuade a skittish city council to find room for a homeless shelter and organize a news conference to tout the project with equal finesse.

Scott Mather was the first person you talked to in Orange County about the poor and homeless--until one mid-March day in 1990, when he admitted to stunned colleagues that his insurance brokerage had defrauded the very charities for which he had worked so zealously of thousands of dollars.

In the year and a half since that revelation, Mather--who is still under investigation by state insurance authorities--has maintained a low profile, trying to repay the money and maintain his home and family.

But recently he has begun to shed the mantle of disgrace to emerge again as a public advocate. The St. Vincent De Paul Society hired Mather soon after the insurance scandal broke, and last week he made one of his first public appearances for the group. Mather went before the La Habra City Council to petition for Mary's Home, a transitional shelter for homeless families that has encountered some opposition in the community.

The council delayed a decision on the project pending the outcome of an environmental impact report.

For Mather, the La Habra appearance was cause for both apprehension and exhilaration: He admits that he is still nagged by the question of how he will be accepted. But he must also admit to himself that the role of public advocate is one he plays well.

"It's one thing I've been looking at and have to reconcile," he said, recounting his feelings a day later at a sidewalk cafe near his office. "It's not so much a surge when I get up there, but I realize I do have some talent and it's wrong not to use it."

Mather's acknowledged ability has been the great gift and great burden of his life; it forms the key question of his future and poses a wrenching dilemma for his colleagues: Will he be allowed to resume a substantial role as public champion and, more important, should he?

Mather sees the answer clearly.

"I did not have a lobotomy," he says firmly. "I think I do have something to offer. What I did was wrong, but I did try to make restitution. I am still committed to the issues and will continue to work for them. I have not gone away."

The words are defiant and proud but do not come off as boastful.

His friends say such contradictions--generosity and sensitivity on the one hand, impatience and compulsiveness on the other--are what had combined to make him one of the state's leading social activists.

He helped establish the Anaheim Interfaith Shelter, was chairman of the Orange Coast Interfaith Shelter and the Costa Mesa charity Share Our Selves. He helped develop the Orange County Homeless Issues Task Force and the California Homeless Coalition. He was in demand as a lecturer on the art of writing grant proposals and was an escort and friend of the late Mitch Snyder, a nationally prominent homeless advocate who traveled to California several times before his death.

At the same time he was assuming such a demanding role fighting the good cause, Mather found himself devoting less and less attention to his Newport Beach insurance firm.

Over the years he had begun doing business with several of the charities he was involved with, a practice now seen as unwise but then viewed as mutually convenient.

Somewhere between his deepening involvement with the poor, his deteriorating business and the increasing gratification that came with being a sort of super volunteer, Mather says, his moral compass tilted and he began using premiums intended to purchase insurance for his own purposes.

By the end, five organizations in Orange and Los Angeles counties said they had paid premiums totaling more than $27,000 for bogus insurance policies.

Today, Mather says he has not come to understand his actions any better but accepts his flaws and the need to keep them in check.

"I recognize that part of me--that tendency to procrastinate, the ego. To me it's a part of being human," he said.

He also sees in himself the same self-destructive tendencies that plagued his friend Mitch Snyder, who committed suicide in July, 1990.

"It's the intensity of it," said Mather. "Everything seems so dependent on you. . . . You become so fixated that you become more concerned about the ends than the means. I feel differently about it now. I'm still committed but I don't feel like I'm the only one who's right, the only who can find the light."

But the light is transfixing and Mather has been unable to keep away from it. He has attended a few meetings, has made a few public-speaking appearances, mostly in the Los Angeles area, and has even been asked to join the board of some agencies--offers he has so far declined.

He would like to expand his consulting work and perhaps become involved again with the homeless task force.

Whether or not he is allowed to again carry the torch remains to be seen.

He says that he has received support from the county's charitable community but admits that he has heard "through the grapevine" angry reactions to any resumption of more public activities.

Some of the agencies with which he was involved have rebuffed offers by Mather to address their boards of directors in person to explain his actions.

Others are ambivalent:

"I think Scott is a thoughtful person, and he would think seriously about anything he would take on and whether it would have a positive impact," said Dolores Barrett, a prominent member of Orange County's charity community and formerly executive director of the Anaheim Interfaith Shelter, which paid Mather more than $5,000 for questionable insurance policies.

"It's a matter of trust," said Linda Schulein, executive director of the Orange Coast Interfaith Shelter, which also paid more than $5,000 for phony insurance policies. "You want to feel you can totally trust the people in a position of leadership on these issues. . . . I would not think he could get the same kind of respect he would have had in the past."

But even Schulein and others who were victimized by Mather believe that he is still genuinely devoted to helping the poor and homeless.

"I think whether he is able to gain confidence back depends on how Scott is able to come to terms with his actions," said longtime friend Jean Forbath, who recently retired as director of Share Our Selves, one of the county's largest private charities. "He certainly contributed a great deal as an advocate. There are some things that still need to be cleared up, but then I think people would be happy to embrace him."

Still unresolved in Mather's road to recovery is what, if any, actions the insurance commission might take against him.

At the extreme is a possible criminal prosecution and the revocation of his insurance license.

One insurance commission spokesman said that while the case is still open, it is not a high priority because Mather has stopped his actions, has cooperated with authorities and has made restitution.

"Often times in a case like this, no action is taken," said the spokesman.

Mather said he would like the issue resolved as soon as possible. But he is more concerned right now with putting all the components of his life back together. The retirement money that he and his wife Kay had saved is gone, their home is on the brink of repossession and their lifestyle has undergone a dramatic shift downward.

But unchanged is the entire family's commitment to the cause of social justice, Mather said.

The family--including two teen-age children who still reside at home--have been in counseling and may even be healthier for the experience, he added.

"I don't think they ever lost faith in me," Mather said. "They viewed me as perfect, and I had tried to sustain that image. I think it was maybe somewhat of a relief for them--I'm not this sanctimonious jerk any more."

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