Theft from church draws year in jail

Judge says accountant's punishment might deter others from such a crime

November 26, 2003|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

A 53-year-old accountant who stole $50,000 from a Columbia church to pay back money he had taken from an estate was sentenced yesterday to one year in jail.

Despite pleas for leniency from Charles Sylvester White's lawyers, family and colleagues, who said the thefts were a blip in what has been a "stellar" life, Howard Circuit Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr. said he believed a jail term would show others tempted to commit the same crime that an "upstanding person ... had to pay the price for it."

"It might act to deter others," Kane said before imposing a three-year sentence with all but one year suspended. White was also sentenced to three years of probation for convictions of theft and attempted theft.

The sentence left White's family in tears. A lawyer for the church, First Baptist Church of Guilford, said he was "disappointed" that White would have to serve time.

In a victim impact statement, church officials had asked Kane not to impose jail time, even though they said the thefts had created "doubt and loss of faith" in the institution's handling of money and had affected donations.

"We know him, and the church is in the forgiving business," said Columbia attorney Charles L. Fuller, who represents First Baptist. "That's what we do."

The theft was discovered last year after White, a former trustee hired to review church finances in preparation for a proposed expansion, tried to deposit a $60,000 check into an account for his employer, the Northern Virginia Urban League, prosecutors said.

That check was missing a required second signature and never cleared, prosecutors said. At the time, White blamed his actions on a mix-up, but church officials later found that he had cashed a church check for $50,000 in February - three months before the discovery of the $60,000 check, prosecutors said.

White had deposited the $50,000 into his employer's account and then wrote four checks to repay an estate from which he had taken money by a court-ordered deadline, prosecutors said.

"Good people who do bad things need to have consequences," said state prosecutor Lynn Marshall, who asked Kane to impose the one-year jail term. "If you steal from a church, you need to go to jail."

But White's lawyers, family members and colleagues said his one lapse should not come with incarceration.

"He is fundamentally a good person. ... This was a big mistake for him," said Columbia attorney Charles Jerome Ware, who shared office space with White. "Charles feels he not only let down his church and his family, but his community."

After finding out about the theft, his family rallied around him, collecting the money to pay back the church, said White's brother, Clarence White Jr.

"We wanted to do the right thing to the church," he said.

As a result of the incident, Charles White said he lost his home. His wife, who had been a longtime secretary at the church, lost her job.

It was "poor judgment" that led to his actions, he said.

He apologized for the "harm and for the heartache I caused."

"I have asked God for forgiveness and hope in some kind of way that my church family will forgive me ... and look past my moment of weakness," he said.

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