Determined official followed paper trail to catch embezzler

former manager stole at least $65,000 from village coffers

November 22, 1999|By DEL QUENTIN WILBER | DEL QUENTIN WILBER,SUN STAFF

Bob Conors was suspicious. For several months, he had been asking the manager of Dorsey's Search Village in Columbia to explain unusually high expenses in her quarterly reports.

Anne S. Darrin never provided convincing answers to Conors, a village board member.

The retired Air Force lieutenant colonel offered to help her with a computer program to tabulate the village's books. After several delays, Conors found himself one afternoon in November 1997 at the computer in Darrin's office as the manager read off receipts and bills.

When she read off a receipt for $100 from an office supply store, Conors grabbed it from her hands. It showed the village owed the store nearly $2,000.

"Nobody, nobody has a bill for exactly $100," Conors said. "I knew I had something then."

Prosecutors and police investigators credited Conors, 69, with helping expose Darrin's embezzlement of about $65,000 from the village over four years. They said they had no idea how much longer the fraud would have continued had Conors not become suspicious, held Darrin accountable and then gone to Columbia Association officials when members of his village board didn't believe him.

"Anne Darrin would still be in place if it weren't for Bob Conors," said Francis W. Curran, an investigator in the Howard County state's attorney's office.

On Thursday, during an emotional hearing, Darrin was sentenced to 18 months in prison, after pleading guilty in September. Much of the money she stole -- which the village said was more than $100,000, not the $65,000 she acknowledged -- paid off her credit cards and helped finance her son's Baltimore restaurant, The Strand.

Strong work ethic

At her sentencing, several witnesses testified about Darrin's work ethic and dedication to Dorsey's Search.

Because of her good reputation and because nearly everyone liked her, Conors' efforts to expose the fraud were hindered.

"This was a hard case because Anne Darrin was known by an awful lot of people, so well-known that there was a bridge of trust," said Joseph Merke, chairman of the Columbia Council.

Conors wasn't always suspicious. He liked Darrin, too, even as he pushed her to explain her accounting methods and the quarterly reports.

But Conors' attitude changed one Saturday morning in early 1997 when he approached Darrin to get an application to run for re-election to the village board.

"She just smiled and told me I was too late," Conors said. "I guess she didn't like me too much."

Beliefs hard to shake

Because the election did not fill all the seats on the village board, Conors was appointed to the panel. About June 1997, Conors, who was suspicious of Darrin, said he questioned her further about the finances. "She stalled me and stalled me again," he said.

Sometimes, Darrin came up with fantastic excuses. Conors and other board members asked her about $25,000 of expenses on a quarterly report. Darrin said much of that money was needed to pay for the dry cleaning of table cloths.

"It just didn't seem reasonable," Conors said. "That's an enormous amount of dry cleaning for $25,000."

As a former military man, Conors had a mind-set about how things should work. The quarterly reports must match up correctly. The expenses should be in line. Conors also has a knack for numbers and had taken some accounting classes for fun -- "to better understand depreciation," he said.

Despite his suspicions, others on the board backed Darrin. "She's a charismatic person," Conors said.

He pushed Darrin to let him help her with a computer program. When he snatched the receipt that day two years ago, she began to cry. She would never allow him back into the room.

A month passed, and Conors mulled over his choices. Finally, he approached Columbia Association officials and asked them to conduct an audit. He showed them the receipt and documents obtained from other village employees. One record was a contract between a wireless telephone provider and the village -- signed by Darrin's husband, John, who is not a village employee.

The meeting went well, Conors said. The next day, he learned that accountants would begin inspecting the village's books. After they completed their preliminary report in February 1998, Darrin resigned.

Columbia officials then called Howard County police, and Detective Bill Block responded. Soon, prosecutor Bernard L. Taylor and Curran, the investigator, were helping draft search warrants and plotting strategy.

Making the next move

Even though accountants had produced a detailed audit, the investigators needed to probe deeper, a process that would take more than a year. They needed to prove where the checks Darrin wrote went and why they were written.

A paper trail showed Darrin used village money to pay her credit card bills, other expenses and to help her son's restaurant. The investigators eventually collected two filing cabinets and several large boxes full of documents.

Conors attended Darrin's sentencing, saying nothing. He's the village board chairman and says things have changed.

"A board member or myself co-signs all the checks."

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