Man jailed in PTA thefts

18-month sentence in court plea bargain

`Violated an institution'

Defendant repays $64,600 taken from elementary

Carroll County

January 31, 2003|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

The former treasurer of the Hampstead Elementary School PTA was sentenced yesterday to 18 months in jail after he admitted embezzling more than $64,000 from the organization.

John N. Biggs Jr., who bowed his head as he pleaded guilty to a felony theft scheme, also complied yesterday with an order to repay the money he took from the PTA.

Biggs had used some of the PTA money to cover his unauthorized use of about $9,000 at his former job as area operations manager for the BB&T bank in Westminster, which fired him without filing charges in December 2000, according to the statement of facts in support of the guilty plea by Senior Assistant State's Attorney Melissa O. Hockensmith.

Carroll Circuit Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr. ordered Biggs, who is free on $150,000 bond, to report Monday to begin serving his sentence at the Carroll County Detention Center. The judge suspended the balance of a seven-year sentence and ordered that Biggs hold no future position of trust for any nonprofit organization.

"You have shaken the pillars of the community and violated an institution that's been known by all of us, the PTA," Beck told Biggs, 41.

During the hearing, Donna Lyons, the school's PTA president, struggled to contain her emotions while describing the effect Biggs' embezzlement had upon schoolchildren who raised money for a playground and other school projects.

Lyons - who in June alerted the Carroll County Council of PTAs and Hampstead police that money appeared to be missing from the organization and that Biggs had refused to hand over its books - said that when she took office the PTA's accounts were supposed to contain $25,000 for the playground and $10,000 for computers.

"We all had worked many, many hours to reach this goal," she said, her voice breaking with emotion as she recalled learning that the money "was gone."

"The children did nothing wrong, but they were directly affected by John's actions," Lyons told the judge. "He flat-out lied to each and every one of us. ... We trusted John and believed in him."

Before sentencing, Biggs told the judge that he was sorry for his acts.

"The first thing I'd like to do is apologize to all the boys and girls at Hampstead Elementary School for betraying their trust," he said.

He described his "downward spiral," which he said began with health problems five years ago, a debt to remodel his family's home for his mother-in-law and stress from a North Carolina bank's acquisition of the Carroll County Bank & Trust Co., where he worked.

Biggs said he felt like the fictional George Bailey standing on a bridge ready to end it all in the classic movie It's a Wonderful Life. He asked for compassion for his children from the community, and mercy for himself from the judge.

To raise money, the 650 elementary school children sold candles and candy bars, put decorated donation jars at their parents' work, contributed their ice cream money or allowances, did extra chores, held a penny drive in the school lobby with big paper thermometer to mark their progress and wrote a letter to area businesses that drew more than $3,000, Hockensmith said.

Biggs took the money to pay his living expenses, she said, meaning that "these elementary school kids were supporting Mr. Biggs for two years."

Because Biggs had not paid taxes or made required payments on behalf of the PTA, the organization faced thousands of dollars of debt, the prosecutor said.

Biggs turned over the PTA books June 17, after being confronted by the incoming county PTA president and admitting to her that he had taken an unknown amount of money to cover his living expenses, Hockensmith said.

Carroll County auditors helped the state's attorney's office trace bank accounts and hundreds of records, revealing 42 checks that were transfers of money to Biggs. He was charged with 42 counts of theft, which were dropped yesterday as part of the plea agreement.

Biggs repaid yesterday $56,105, the balance of the $64,605 that he stole from July 2000 until June, said Hockensmith, who had made restitution a condition of the plea bargain.

Biggs had replaced $8,500 in the PTA account before the scheme came to light by cashing in a retirement account, said defense attorney Kathi Hill.

In October 2000, the prosecutor said, Biggs used $9,153 of the PTA funds to reimburse BB&T for the unauthorized transfer of bank funds into his personal account and for the use of a bank card for personal purchases.

Although Biggs had no prior criminal record, "This was not the first time he embezzled, took money that did not belong to him," Hockensmith told the judge.

Thomas K. Ferguson of Westminster, executive vice president for economic and community development at BB&T, confirmed that Biggs was fired for transferring money from a general ledger account of the bank and for using a bank credit card to make unauthorized purchases.

The money was repaid, Biggs was fired and the bank filed no charges, he said.

"I think that was a judgment call that was made at that time. It's probably best if I just leave it at that," Ferguson said. He said the bank's handling of the situation involved "personnel matters that I really can't delve into."

Biggs began to suffer from depression in 1998, and although he kept his job, his salary was reduced and he worked nights cleaning offices, including the bank where he worked, Hill said.

Biggs has sold his family's home in Hampstead to repay the PTA, and has been living in Westminster with his mother-in-law while his wife and two children have relocated to Nevada to live on the charity of his sister-in-law, the defense lawyer said.

After the thefts came to light, Biggs wrote letters to his two children and quietly left his home, Hill said, driving down the East Coast and prompting his loved ones to worry that he might kill himself.

"He feels the anger of the entire community," Hill told Beck yesterday.

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