Settlement seen in theft of PTA funds

Lawyer says ex-officer to enter guilty plea

Restitution key to agreement

$64,605 in checks written on group's bank account


January 30, 2003|By Jennifer McMenamin and Sheridan Lyons | Jennifer McMenamin and Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

A lawyer for a former PTA treasurer accused of embezzling more than $64,000 from Hampstead Elementary School's parent organization and the prosecutor in the case said the man is expected to plead guilty to theft today.

John N. Biggs Jr., 41, was scheduled to go to trial today on dozens of charges in connection with $64,605 worth of checks written from the elementary school PTA's bank account that could not be accounted for.

But prosecutors and Biggs' attorney have struck a tentative agreement through which Biggs is expected to admit to the first of 43 counts against him - a felony theft scheme - and agree to repay $56,105 to the school's PTA, said Melissa O. Hockensmith, Carroll's senior state's attorney for white-collar crime. Biggs repaid $8,500 before the thefts were discovered last summer, she said.

"Restitution is a very important part of this case," Hockensmith said.

In return for Biggs' agreement to repay the money, prosecutors will not oppose a sentence that would send the Westminster man to the Carroll County Detention Center rather than a state prison.

Neither Hockensmith nor defense lawyer Kathi Hill would discuss particulars of the sentencing recommendation, but jail terms typically run up to 18 months while defendants with longer sentences go to prison. The maximum penalty for felony theft scheme is 15 years in prison and a $1,000 fine.

"It depends upon whether he shows up with a check," Hockensmith said. If so, she added, "my recommendation will be local time."

She said that the agreement is not binding and that Carroll Circuit Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr. will determine the sentence.

Suspicions about the PTA's finances surfaced in mid-June when Hampstead Elementary Principal Monica Smith was preparing a purchase order for a $28,000 playground that the PTA was buying for the school.

But the playground fund - for which children had sold candles, participated in mini-marathons and collected pennies - was short $1,752.14. More troubling to school officials was the disappearance of money the Hampstead PTA had raised toward development of a wireless computer lab.

When Claire Kwiatkowski, incoming president of the Carroll County Council of PTAs, confronted Biggs about the missing money, he admitted that he had been taking money from the account for personal expenses after losing his job, according to court documents.

After the investigation was turned over to Hampstead police, the total dollar figure attached to questionable transactions over a two-year period grew to $64,605.

The money began disappearing in October 2000, a few months after Biggs became PTA treasurer, according to court records.

On Oct. 23, police documents allege, he removed $6,020 from the PTA's account at AllFirst Bank, the first in a series of 42 unexplained withdrawals through May 2002. Police allege Biggs removed money in amounts as small as $25 and as large as thousands of dollars and deposited it in his personal account.

The department's investigation quickly targeted Biggs because police determined the treasurer was the only person with a sufficient combination of access (he processed the checks to the PTA) and motive (he apparently was in debt and struggling to find work). Police arrested Biggs after about a month of investigation. He has been free on $150,000 bond while awaiting trial.

Biggs, through his wife of 16 years, Cathy Biggs, declined to comment on his case this week. Cathy Biggs told The Sun that the family had suffered financial problems since her husband lost his job as a bank branch manager in 2000 and had tried without success to make ends meet by selling cell phones and vacuum cleaners, among other pursuits.

She said that after he was confronted with the allegations last year he apologized to school officials.

"He wasn't maliciously trying to hurt anybody. He was thinking he was going to get a job and pay this money back," she said Monday.

She said the couple has sold the family home to raise money to pay restitution.

Cathy Biggs did not return several phone messages yesterday seeking comment on her husband's tentative plea agreement.

Hampstead PTA President Donna Lyons declined to comment on the tentative agreement, and the elementary school's principal referred all questions to school system administrators.

Edmund J. O'Meally, the school system's attorney, said that a sentence combining jail time and restitution would be satisfactory to the school system.

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