Anne Arundel County PTA leaders take note: Don't let a belief in the basic goodness of people get in the way of sound business practices.
Rita Lowman, head of the county's PTA umbrella group, issued that warning yesterday after learning the former treasurer of the Crofton Meadows Elementary School PTA had been convicted of taking up to $3,500 of the association's money.
Susan Haller, 32, of the 2000 block of Cambridge Drive, Crofton, pleaded guilty last week to felony theft and is scheduled for sentencing Dec. 15.
Earlier in October, Charles R. Nastasi, a former treasurer of the Hilltop Elementary School PTA in Ferndale, pleaded guilty to stealing $6,400 from that organization. He is to be sentenced Nov. 29.
"You hate to have a lack of trust in people, but this is a time when PTAs are raising $20,000 to $45,000 a year in this county, and that's quite a temptation," said Mrs. Lowman, president of the Anne Arundel County Council of PTAs. "You can't let one person be responsible for all of that money. You hope they're honest, but sometimes the temptation is a little more than they can handle."
Mrs. Lowman said the PTA has always advocated sound business practices: having two board members sign checks; conducting an annual audit; and purchasing bonded insurance against theft.
Of the 83 PTAs in the county, only 12, including the Jacobsville Elementary School PTA, have bonded insurance that would protect against loss or theft.
Jane Riedy, past president of the Jacobsville PTA, said she received the organization's bank balance and receipts in a grocery bag when she took over four years ago. Since then, she has made it more businesslike and required two signatures for any check written.
The 6-year-old Crofton Meadows PTA had a note on its account that any check required two signatures, but the bank never questioned the one-signature checks Haller cashed, said Linda Craig, who was PTA president at the time.
Haller took over the duties in 1989 when the original treasurer left, and court records show she had "total control" of the PTA's checking account.
Among the checks she was charged with writing are a $417 check on Feb. 19, 1993, and other checks totaling $649 between Dec. 15, 1992, and Dec. 21, 1992.
Haller, a former free-lance community correspondent for The Sun and registrar for the Crofton Athletic Council, agreed in a plea bargain to repay the money.
Peter Nicolini, Crofton Meadows principal, said financial discrepancies were discovered about a year ago when Mrs. Craig began receiving bills she thought had been paid.
School board auditors reviewed the books, and police were called. The bank helped reconstruct the records that Haller said she could not provide because she spilled soda on them.
"Part of the thing that has made this very, very difficult is that Mrs. Haller was so involved in the school and community, and she did many positive things. You can't forget that," Mr. Nicolini said. "I'm not condoning what happened, but how much do you want to punish someone?