Theft from Arundel inmate fund alleged Woman who operated jail store accused of stealing $60,000

September 02, 1998|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The woman who ran the Anne Arundel County Detention Center store for inmates was arrested yesterday, accused of stealing more than $60,000 from an inmate fund in a politically charged financial investigation that is spilling into this fall's county executive race.

Wanda Bartley Conaway, 40, of the 1800 block of Calvert Circle in Huntingtown, was indicted Monday on one count of felony theft, which carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison. After turning herself in yesterday, she was freed on personal recognizance.

The charge is the culmination of investigations first by the county auditor and then by the state's attorney that lasted two years. The investigations examined what turned out to be sorry fiscal practices at the jail, revealed an abandoned 1995 police probe and led to open warfare between County Executive John G. Gary and then-Council President Diane R. Evans.

"I feel vindicated that I referred [the auditor's findings] to the state's attorney's office after Auditor Teresa Sutherland advised the council of possible criminal wrongdoing," said Evans, who switched to the Democratic Party to oppose Gary's bid for re-election.

In her prepared statement, she accused Gary of "suppressing an investigation" in 1995 and allowing sloppy bookkeeping to waste county dollars.

Gary's spokeswoman, Lisa I. Ritter, countered by saying that the 1995 police probe dead-ended when witnesses refused to talk, and that no taxpayer dollars have been lost.

Whether county taxpayers subsidized inmate purchases of snacks and toiletries, as Evans claims, or inmates themselves were the losers, as Ritter claims, is hazy.

"We are pleased that the state's attorney's office with the help of the auditor's office has brought this investigation to a close," Ritter said. "We believe restitution is appropriate."

The indictment alleges that the $60,000 in thefts occurred over 13 months from November 1995 through December 1996, based on the investigation by the state's attorney's office, which began last August. An earlier audit by Sutherland had indicated $50,000 was unaccounted for.

Conaway submitted her resignation several weeks ago, effective Friday, but has not returned to work since last Thursday, said Richard J. Baker, superintendent of the detention center. She had worked there since September 1993 and was earning $24,954 a year. She could not be reached for comment.

Conaway's job was to handle transactions for the inmates' store. The commissary fund holds inmates' money, with which prisoners buy snacks and toiletries.

Each inmate has an account within the fund. As an inmate buys items from the commissary, the amount is drawn from his account. If the inmate is released with money in the account, the jail issues a check to the prisoner for the balance. No inmate has complained of getting shortchanged.

Evans argued that the taxpayers wound up on the losing end because of the troubled fund. Not so, Ritter said. A second source of revenue, another inmate fund, comes from commissary profits and inmate telephone charges. It buys toiletries for poor inmates as well as items the county does not buy, such as library books and basketballs. Some of those profits covered what would have been shortfalls in the inmate-funded accounts, Ritter said.

Sutherland had begun a routine review of jail bookkeeping in June 1996 that eventually lasted until August 1997. She was stymied at first in efforts to retrieve records about inmate accounts because jail officials said they had a hard time compiling them.

After she consulted the state's attorney's office about how to proceed without the documents, Gary accused Sutherland of violating the county charter by going to the state's attorney's office without notifying him.

In her initial report, the auditor told the County Council in February 1997 that she believed at least $10,000 was missing. Inmate money was credited to the account on paper, but cash receipts were not always deposited in the bank.

An expanded audit by Sutherland, given to the council and executive in August 1997, then noted that a total of $50,000 could not be accounted for.

Pub Date: 9/02/98

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