Ex-worker at seminary guilty of embezzling

Former office manager admits to stealing $200,000 from St. Mary's

November 01, 2003|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

A former office manager at St. Mary's Seminary & University in Roland Park -- who faked her suicide to avoid capture -- pleaded guilty yesterday to stealing more than $200,000 from the venerable Catholic institution, according to the Baltimore state's attorney's office.

Cynthia Jean Downs, 47, of the 2500 block of Tolley St. continued to be held on $2 million bail at the Baltimore City Detention Center last night. Sentencing is set Jan. 9.

Under a plea agreement, Downs could receive a maximum sentence of eight years in prison followed by five years' probation. She is also required to pay back the money she stole from St. Mary's, the nation's first Catholic seminary.

Downs is the second employee of a Catholic institution accused of theft in recent months. In August, Baltimore police arrested Victor George Puotinen, a former worker for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, on charges that he stole almost $443,000 from the archdiocese and the Basilica of the Assumption.

Puotinen is scheduled for arraignment Tuesday. The cases are not connected.

When Downs began working at St Mary's in September 1999, the seminary did not know she had served a prison sentence for embezzlement, officials said. She left St. Mary's in December last year after she was laid off for financial reasons not related to the theft.

During her tenure, Downs worked as an office manager and booked groups for the seminary's conference center. In her final 13 months, she stole more than 90 checks written by clients and deposited them in a dummy account she had established in the center's name at a local bank, according to her attorney, David Henninger.

The seminary discovered that money was missing from its bank account in March during an annual audit and notified the state's attorney's office.

Betty Visconage, the seminary's vice president for institutional advancement, said Downs hid the thefts by paying off some of the institution's oldest, largest outstanding accounts receivable before seminary officials caught on.

"She was quite expert," Visconage said. "There was a fairly sophisticated scheme she had to try to keep some of the oldest [overdue bills] off the books. There was a lot of talk about how she was following up on these accounts and would get the money back."

Since the spring, the seminary has instituted criminal background checks for all employees, Visconage said. Several employees now handle incoming checks to the conference center.

A month after the seminary discovered the theft, Downs disappeared in Ocean City. Police found her car in a parking lot with the lights on, doors locked and key in the ignition. In what police called a suicide note, Downs said she would rather die than return to jail.

In July, police arrested Downs at a shelter for battered women in Norfolk, Va. She had undergone liposuction and dyed her hair red to disguise herself. Police located her after she called one of her ex-husbands asking for money.

Downs has said she was forced to steal, Henninger said.

"She tells me that a family member had a serious gambling and alcohol problem, and she was more or less coerced to give the money to that person," said Henninger, who declined to identify the family member. "That's going to be her defense in sentencing."

Not long after Downs was laid off, her husband, Clarence E. Downs III, died in a Christmas night fire that destroyed their home in Lansdowne. Fire officials blamed the blaze on careless smoking.

Downs set up a bank account for contributions to the family, Visconage said, and St. Mary's, unaware of the theft, donated at least $1,000.

"People were very upset to hear about it and wanted to help," Visconage said.

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