Missing money in Brockton PAC case highlights need for better controls
Community groups across the region raise thousands of dollars each year to benefit schools, youth programs and people in need.
But that money can be easy pickings when placed in the hands of unscrupulous members tempted by need or greed — and when there is little or no oversight by the organization on how the money is handled.
“It happens more than it should,” said Tim Sullivan, founder and publisher of PTO Today magazine, which is distributed nationwide from that school parent group’s headquarters in Wrentham.
“It happens with band booster clubs, Little League and in businesses,” he said.
Sullivan said such thefts occur 20 to 30 times a year in school parent groups across the country. The amount stolen may vary, but it is common to see $8,000 or more missing in a single case — and some thefts have reached $20,000 to $30,000, he said.
It happened in Randolph, where former Kennedy School POT treasurer Nancy E. Hernandez, 44, admitted in court to taking $8,700 from the till. She was ordered to repay the money and sentenced to two years probation after pleading guilty in Quincy District Court.
In Carver, Jane Johnson, 51, was charged with stealing $3,000 from the John Martin Memorial Fund. She was on the board of directors of the fund, which benefits needy children.
Most recently, leaders of the Hancock School Parent Advisory Council in Brockton found thousands of dollars missing from their fund. They say the former treasurer took some $15,000 in cash and checks during 17 months in office. They identified the former treasurer as Christine Peterson.
“We never suspected this individual would hurt children in this way,” said Jodi Zine, vice president of the Hancock PAC.
“I feel like a family member betrayed us,” PAC President Marybeth Biggins added.
Their reaction is understandable, said Elizabeth Spievak, assistant professor of psychology at Bridgewater State College, who said there is no typical personality profile for a person who takes something that doesn’t belong to them.
“It is a crime of opportunity,” said Spievak, “opportunity that maybe they couldn’t resist.”
The person may be driven by self interest, financial need or perceived financial need, perhaps related to social status, according to Spievak.
“A lot of people steal not to live but for extravagances,” she added.
In Brockton, PAC leaders said they never questioned the treasurer’s monthly reports that have now been described as “fraudulent,” and they accepted her explanations for not making timely payments for bills incurred by the group.
As they look back, the PAC leaders say they see the flaws in the system that had been in place for 20 years and have now taken steps to close the gaps and safeguard the treasury.
Local groups are not alone in their experience.
It happened before in Brockton, five years ago at the Kennedy School PAC, and it happens in cities and towns across the country, according to Sullivan, of PTO Today.
The average parent group raises $23,000 a year, he said, and spends that much on enrichment programs, field trips and parties for the children.
The money comes from a variety of fundraising activities, from organized sales through commercial vendors to local bake sales. Members hold spaghetti suppers and talent shows. They run raffles and drawings.
The fund raisers are parents, busy parents who juggle family responsibilities with community service.
“Every leader of a parent group is good-hearted, enthusiastic and generous,” Sullivan said. “They could be home watching ‘American Idol,’ but they choose to volunteer at their kids school.”
There’s no training to be a school leader, just a willingness to serve. And, it is often difficult to get people to serve in leadership positions.
Trust is betrayed
When someone steps forward to serve with a community group, they are welcomed with open arms and friendships develop. With the common threads of parenting and serving the school and the children, trust is implied.
“Embezzlement or theft is when opportunity meets need or desperation,” Sullivan said. It may happen once, twice, three times. “Then it becomes a slippery slope.”
When Hancock PAC leaders got their hands on their group’s financial records, they learned the problem started in September 2006, just three weeks after a new treasurer was seated, and continued through February or March of this year.
“The temptation is there and the people often take the money with the intention of paying it back in two weeks,” said Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy Cruz. “But, two weeks comes and goes and it doesn’t get paid back.”
More money is taken, it is not returned and a cycle begins.
“Pretty soon there is no way they could pay the money back and eventually the theft is discovered and the scheme falls apart,” Cruz said.
Group leaders are devastated. Betrayed and angry, they go to authorities, hoping to recoup their losses, expecting to see the responsible person punished.
But, that does not always happen, Hancock School PAC leaders learned in recent weeks when the accused treasurer was not charged with a criminal act. Instead, she returned part of the money, officials said.
New federal rule
The Parent Advisory Council is an independent organization, serving the school and working hand-in-hand with administrators and teachers. But the school district does not have legal or financial ties with parent organizations.
A new federal IRS regulation requires groups like a PAC to file financial statements for the first time this year, according to James Hayden, executive for Brockton schools executive director of operations and administration.
Hayden said he has met with leaders of the parent organizations throughout the city and is offering training to help financial officers in their tasks. Later this month, a representative of the national Parent Teacher Organization is coming to Brockton to provide information for the groups and an accountant will also be available to help.
“We have well-meaning alert people who are doing the best they can in all of their roles,” Hayden said. Because the leaders of the Hancock PAC were paying attention, he said they discovered the problem there.
Hayden joined others in recommending tighter money management controls, some of which have already been adopted .
Patty Joyce, School Committee vice chairman, served as treasurer and president of the Arnone School PAC for several years and knows the challenges volunteers face.
“They have a difficult time getting people to volunteer for these positions to begin with,” Joyce said. “When something like this happens, it makes it more difficult.”
Elaine Allegrini can be reached at email@example.com.