Embezzler ordered to pay back school Former bookkeeper also given 18-month jail term

March 01, 1998|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The former bookkeeper of a private school in Arnold has been sentenced to 18 months in jail and ordered to repay the $300,000 she embezzled from Chesapeake Academy over nearly four years. But how much of that money the school will see is questionable.

Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Clayton R. Greene Jr. also ordered a weeping Patricia Anne Mason, 40, to perform 500 hours of community service while she serves five years of probation after her prison term.

"She is never going to be able to make full restitution," said her attorney, T. Joseph Touhey. "There has been a feverish effort to get everything she's got. But there's no money now. It's gone."

It went to home furnishings, college, travel and extravagances, he said.

Mason, who pleaded guilty to felony theft last year, and her husband, William, have sold their Annapolis home for $277,000 and moved to an Arnold townhouse, court records show.

So far, Mason has repaid $14,000. To get more, the school probably will have to get in line behind the IRS, which wants to tax Mason for unreported income, Touhey said.

Chesapeake Academy has filed civil suits to force the sale of the Masons' assets to recoup its losses. In a letter to Greene, the school staff, trustees and parents estimated that it would take 58 years for Mason to reimburse the school at the rate of $100 a month.

Mason, who is being treated for depression, works as a receptionist in Annapolis.

Principal Jane Pehlke said officials at the 275-student nursery and elementary school are satisfied with the outcome of the criminal case. The maximum penalty could have been 15 years in prison and a $1,000 fine.

"We are concerned because of the children. It is so important for them to understand that when you do something wrong there is punishment," she said.

She acknowledged that it is possible the school will not receive full restitution.

The money, stolen between September 1993 and May 1997, would have gone to buy more computers, pay teachers and retire the school's mortgage, she said.

Mason was trusted and liked by families that sacrifice to pay tuition and by a staff for whom she ran day-to-day financial matters. She abused the confidence placed in her so she could indulge her expensive tastes, said Assistant State's Attorney John LeCornu.

"She did not just bite the hand that feeds her. She gnawed at it for some four years," he said.

So clever were the chronic thefts that no one -- not Pehlke, who signed many checks, nor the school's finance chairman, who reviewed them, nor the auditors -- could detect them. But last spring, Pehlke happened to look through checks and saw her signature stamp on several that were made out on a Saturday. The expenses were not authorized.

Since then, the school has switched auditors and officials look closely at the checks.

"We got burned and we got burned badly," Pehlke said.

Pub Date: 3/01/98

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