More thefts suspected in an Arc home More than $8,000 could be missing from clients' accounts

'It may be a pattern'

Allegations prompt state to examine how agency handles funds

March 06, 1998|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

State regulators are investigating new allegations of missing funds belonging to mentally disabled people cared for by The Arc of Howard County.

The state's Licensing and Certification Administration said yesterday the allegations involve more than $8,000 belonging to clients at an Arc home on Moving Waters Way in Columbia.

Carol Beatty, executive director of Howard's Arc, said she did not know about the investigation into the Moving Waters Way home but would fully cooperate with authorities.

Arc is the largest nonprofit source of services for the mentally handicapped in Howard County.

Carol Benner, director of the Licensing and Certification Administration, said her office recently received information about the possible missing funds. She did not provide details of the source of that information, but she said she is assembling a team to examine records of clients who lived at the home.

The new allegations go beyond the string of thefts of Arc clients' funds reported Monday in The Sun. That article said that 13 retarded people in Arc's care had been victimized by thefts in the past four years -- crimes committed by Arc employees or their relatives and friends.

In response to the story, Benner announced Monday that her office would do an on-site investigation to ensure Arc has procedures to protect clients' welfare.

Benner said yesterday the investigation of possible missing funds at Moving Waters Way includes Lisa Mae Burge, who formerly supervised the Columbia home.

Burge recently admitted stealing nearly $20,000 from four Arc clients, including a 71-year-old severely retarded man who has cerebral palsy and diabetes. In February, Burge was given a suspended sentence and was ordered to pay restitution and spend 90 days in home confinement.

"Our first impression was [that the thefts from Arc clients were] an isolated incident and now it looks like it may be a pattern," said Benner. "We don't know how widespread it is."

If the investigation turns up possible criminal activity, Benner said she will refer the case to law enforcement authorities.

Burge's attorney, Linda Ostovitz, did not return calls seeking comment. Burge could not be located for comment.

Benner said her investigation will encompass how all clients' money is handled, not just those at Moving Waters Way. Arc has 93 people in residential programs and receives most of its funding from the state.

Most clients receive government funds for living expenses, as well as paychecks from jobs. Clients keep that money in in-house accounts or personal bank accounts in the community.

Beatty said Burge was house counselor for the home for about three years before being promoted to a supervisory position in 1995. Burge admitted stealing nearly $20,000 between August 1996 and February 1997.

Beatty said that The Arc had turned over all the records from Moving Waters Way to the attorney general's office two years ago as part of a different investigation, and no charges had resulted.

"We turned it all over to them," Beatty said. "They had the information."

Assistant Attorney General Catherine Schuster Pascale challenged Beatty's implication that her office had found no problems at Moving Waters Way. But she could not say whether Burge is being or has been criminally investigated in connection with the possible missing funds.

Arc officials say they have tightened their policies and procedures in the wake of the thefts.

Former Arc employees said rumors had circulated for months about missing money from the Moving Waters Way home. Linda O'Dell, a former administrative assistant for the residential program, said she warned Arc officials about the situation -- which Arc denies.

Benner said thefts can happen in the best of programs.

"What's important is that you get in there and identify it" so it does not happen again, Benner said. "It looks like this may be a systemic problem."

Pub Date: 3/06/98

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