Museum of Industry director of finance charged with theft

He is accused of stealing $324,000 in donations

May 25, 2004|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Officials at the Baltimore Museum of Industry began noticing some bookkeeping discrepancies late last year.

At first, says Executive Director Paul Cypher, no one suspected theft. But slowly, museum officials grew more suspicious of Samuel T. Mercer, the museum's finance director. He drove lavish cars and said he had inherited $1 million from his grandfather.

Their suspicions intensified this year when police dropped by the museum and arrested Mercer on an unrelated charge. Unknown to officials at the South Baltimore museum, Mercer had a history of theft.

That incident sparked the investigation that culminated yesterday with Mercer's arrest at his home in Northeast Baltimore. Officials say he took $323,836.10 from the museum.

Mercer, 28, of the 2300 block of Pentland Drive was charged with operating a continuing theft scheme, officials said. A grand jury indicted him May 14.

Over 15 months, Mercer is accused of depositing 380 museum donations into a separate bank account he had established, said Detective Sgt. Lester McCrea.

The amount of money stolen is equivalent to more than 20 percent of the Key Highway museum's $1.5 million annual operating budget.

The facility, which overlooks the harbor, displays artifacts from the manufacturing businesses that shaped the city's history. About 150,00 visitors pass through each year.

Mercer's attorney, Warren A. Brown, said yesterday that his client did not steal anything but that Mercer observed sloppy accounting practices.

Mercer started working at the museum in July 2002, Cypher said. He first worked in the gift shop while also doing part-time bookkeeping. His background check came up clean, Cypher said, despite the fact that he had previously been found guilty of theft, uttering a false document and theft scheme charges, according to police and court records.

It was unclear yesterday what warrant was served on Mercer earlier this year, but his attorney said it was for violation of probation. City police said it was served by Baltimore County police.

The donation thefts began in December 2002, a month before Mercer was promoted to finance director, police said yesterday.

According to Cypher and authorities, Mercer diverted the donation checks into an account under the name Diversified Group Inc. He showed museum officials false balance sheets and spreadsheets, indicating that the money had been properly deposited, authorities said.

Museum officials suspended Mercer in February, after the visit from police and his arrest. Cypher then notified authorities, and the U.S. Postal Inspection unit, the city police and the city state's attorney's office began investigating. Mercer resigned a short time later, Cypher said.

Cypher has said the thefts will not affect the museum's financial future, and he expects to recover most of the money. He said the museum has added internal controls since discovering the missing money.

Mercer was being held yesterday at Central Booking and Intake Center. If convicted, he faces a maximum prison term of 15 years, according to the state's attorney's office.

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