$260,000 vanishes from Md. charity

MS staffer was asked to leave after audit

February 18, 1999|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore County state's attorney's office has launched a criminal investigation into the disappearance of more than $260,000 from the state's chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, a nonprofit organization that provides information, activities and services for people with the disease.

The loss, discovered in November during a routine audit, led to a restructuring in which the longtime chapter president departed, said Mark Dumler, volunteer counsel to the board.

In addition, a "longtime, trusted employee" -- who members of the board of trustees believe acted alone in skimming the money from the society's operating account over several years -- was asked to leave, Dumler said.

The Maryland chapter, based in Hunt Valley, conducts several major fund-raising events each year to support its programs for those with multiple sclerosis, a chronic, often disabling disease that attacks the nervous system.

The chapter covers all of Maryland except Prince George's and Montgomery counties, serving about 3,700 people with the disease who have registered with the society. The Maryland chapter's events, including the MS Walk it runs each year, raised $1.15 million last year after expenses.

Dumler said the chapter's 32 employees, who have been told about the investigation, were "outraged" that someone among them would take money.

"At the same time, they are committed to ensuring that this does not affect the society's goals and the people the society serves," the lawyer said. "If anything, it has galvanized them into making sure they remain committed to the cause."

Dumler said an annual audit of the agency's finances turned up financial discrepancies in November.

Shortly afterward, Dori DiVenti of Parkton, the local chapter's president for nearly 17 years, left the agency when the board decided a restructuring of management was in order because of the lost funds, Dumler said yesterday.

Dumler stressed that board members do not think DiVenti is connected with the money's disappearance.

Dumler said another former employee -- whose name and position he refused to disclose -- appeared to have acted alone, taking the money in a way that eluded the chapter's annual audits for several years.

He said the board asked the state's attorney's office to investigate further and has turned over documents.

Prosecutors declined to comment last night, but Dumler and other MS officials said an investigation is under way.

Dumler said the organization expects to recover the full amount from insurance, minus a deductible.

According to the society's most recent Form 990 tax return, Di-Venti was paid $90,931 as president during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. She is being paid a severance package and has agreed to be available to aid in any insurance investigation, Dumler said.

DiVenti, contacted at her home yesterday, said she could not comment on the investigation because she still had "a relationship" with the society.

"I really can't talk about it," she said.

Newton Guerin, director of the national society's Area III office, which provides support to 20 chapters in the Southeast, said the Maryland chapter remains in good standing as part of the national group.

"I think the chapter board of trustees acted in a very responsible way in assessing what the situation was and assuring this kind of activity doesn't happen in the future," Guerin said yesterday. "It certainly is a very unfortunate thing."

Local board members contacted yesterday referred questions to Dumler.

According to the tax return, filed last week for the past fiscal year, the chapter ended the year with a $76,878 deficit. Its next event, the annual Dinner of Champions, a $250-a-plate gala to honor outstanding local volunteers, is scheduled for tomorrow night at Martin's West. Last year's dinner netted $297,314 after expenses.

It was unclear yesterday whether the disappearance of the money could affect the chapter's future fund raising.

Linda Cotton Perry, president of Combined Health Agencies Inc., a fund-raising federation that includes the local multiple sclerosis society, said the chapter had recently informed her of its investigation. The society, one of 24 statewide service organizations affiliated with Combined Health, has been a member agency since 1959.

Perry said her federation conducts an annual review of its affiliates for compliance with a list of minimum standards. Because she had not received this year's materials from the multiple sclerosis society, Perry said it was too early to tell whether the investigation might affect the organization's status with Combined Health.

"I think that we would certainly wait and see what this investigation produces," Perry said. "I couldn't begin to jump to a conclusion.

"If money really was misappropriated, if that's true, that's something we find completely unacceptable."

Pub Date: 2/18/99

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