Last spring a large-scale investigation began in order to locate nearly $40,000 in funds that went missing from the Montgomery County Council of PTAs. The council represents 192 parent-teacher associations from individual schools, making it the single largest PTA organization in the state of Maryland. Members first noticed irregularities in the books back in March and then conducted a three-week internal audit, which revealed that money had been improperly taken from the council’s checking account for about nine months. The money consisted of donations and fundraising event proceeds that would ultimately be used to better the public school experience for students, teachers and parents, and the loss of $40,000 severely limited the council’s ability to plan for the upcoming school year. While the audit did provide some answers, the person or persons responsible for the missing funds remained somewhat of a mystery (at least publicly) and the case was forwarded over to the Montgomery County Police.
Those familiar with the day-to-day operations of the council likely had their suspicions that the newly appointed treasurer was responsible for the missing money. The irregularities began around the time she began her post, and ended after she had resigned in March. Apparently around $10,000 was actually returned to the account in February, around the time that council members noticed something wasn’t right and began asking questions. The former treasurer was not officially charged by the State’s Attorney’s Office in the circuit court until last month, though negotiations between lawyers on both sides had been ongoing before that. A plea agreement was filed by both parties on the same day as the charging document, and the former treasurer will learn her fate at a disposition hearing set for later this month. Maryland sentencing guidelines in this particular case call for a sentence of probation to 6 months in jail, and judges typically adhere to these guidelines. It would be reasonable to expect the judge to invoke a split sentence of county jail time under 6 months followed by probation with the condition that restitution to the council be paid in full.
While the amount in question certainly rises to a felony level theft, the charge of embezzlement is actually a misdemeanor under Maryland criminal law section 7-113. The new theft law as of October 1st makes it a felony to steal anything over $1,500 but legally speaking embezzlement and theft are two separate concepts. Theft consists of unlawfully obtaining the property or services of another, while embezzlement occurs when a person has lawful possession or control of something (money in this case) and uses or secretes if for the wrong purpose. In this case the former treasurer had control over the council’s account, so she did not actually steal anything. Rather, she used the account for a purpose that was contrary to her duty as a fiduciary. The embezzlement law still carries a mandatory jail sentence of one year, but this can be avoided by the imposition of a probation before judgment, or by the imposition of a suspended sentence. Most crimes with minimum mandatory sentences, like firearm crimes, specifically do not allow for suspended sentences or PBJs but this statute does not contain any such language. The Blog will follow this case and may post a follow up article if anything unpredictable occurs at the disposition hearing.
Benjamin Herbst is a Maryland theft lawyer that handles embezzlement, employee theft and fraud in all state and federal jurisdictions. Contact Benjamin for a free consultation at 410-207-2598.
Former PTA treasurer charged with embezzlement in Maryland, washingtonpost.com.