Embezzlement case prompts Carroll action

School system hopes to prevent theft by employees

August 20, 2006|By GINA DAVIS | GINA DAVIS,SUN REPORTER

Amid news that a former Carroll County school financial secretary is facing charges of embezzling more than $200,000 over several years from South Carroll High, school system officials announced sweeping reforms to improve oversight of school finances and try to prevent such thefts.

Schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said the changes - some of which take effect immediately and others to be in place by the time schools open Aug. 28 - will include bolstering staff training to raise awareness about the potential for such thefts and increasing oversight of school accounts through random audits.

"Employee theft happens quite a bit in businesses and industries today and, unfortunately, in school systems," he said.

Wendy Sue Bowers, 39, of the 3800 block of Walnut Grove Road in Taneytown is charged in eight counts with scheming to steal $206,564 since the 1999-2000 school year. Each count carries a possible 15-year sentence and $25,000 fine. If convicted, she could also be forced to pay restitution.

The money was taken from deposits for school-based accounts for athletic events, student fundraisers, vending machine profits, yearbooks and other student activities, Ecker said last week during a news conference.

Prosecutors said they have not recovered the stolen money.

To help stem the district's vulnerability to such thefts, Ecker said he plans to request funding in next year's budget to hire additional auditing staff in the finance department, which has only one employee - a quality control specialist - whose sole job is to monitor school-based accounts.

"We may be able to find some dollars to hire a person this year, I don't know," said Ecker, who added that it would take time to determine how many additional quality control specialists the school system needs.

In the meantime, Ecker said, school officials will randomly visit schools throughout the year to audit school records with class and club advisers.

With additional staffing, he said, they could conduct more visits.

Bradley L. Martin, the school district's comptroller, said he likely would rely on accounting employees to help with the audits this school year.

In addition to hiring more auditors and increasing account oversight, Ecker's four-pronged action plan includes teaching staff to more closely monitor school-based finances and revising school-based account control procedures.

"We will work with the state's attorney's office, our auditors, our own legal counsel and others to highlight real-life examples of employee theft," Ecker said. "We will provide specific information to our employees about how and why it occurs. We will heighten their awareness that - given the right set of circumstances - theft can and will happen anyplace."

Michelle Parrish, the district's finance supervisor, said part of the effort will include making sure that club advisers and athletic directors realize the importance of monitoring the funds they deposit with school financial secretaries.

"We're going to be spending more time with the club advisers and the athletic directors," Parrish said. "In this particular case, they had information and they knew what should've been in the account. ... We knew what went into the bank. What we had looked perfect, [but] what we didn't realize was that maybe at the football game, they took in $4,000 not $2,000."

Ecker said that changes to control procedures would include immediately eliminating the use of separate accounting software by financial secretaries.

Bowers, who earned $34,357 annually as financial secretary at South Carroll, left the district in June, Ecker said. School officials would not say whether she resigned or was fired.

Bowers worked for the district for 16 years, initially as a clerk for the central office before moving to South Carroll High in 1994, school officials said.

In February, Martin discovered deficits in South Carroll's accounts as he prepared for a Middle States Association audit as part of a 10-year evaluation of the district, school officials said.

After an investigation, county prosecutors said they discovered that a prenumbered triplicate paper receipt system had been manipulated. They said the thefts were hidden through the use of two sets of recordkeeping books.

When confronted in June by an investigator at her home, Bowers confessed to stealing money and directed him to a storage space known as the tunnel at the school where she had hidden records, according to State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes.

Ecker said the money would be replaced through the school district's insurance.

"There's probably no way" to eradicate embezzlement cases, he said. "But we're going to do everything we can to prevent it."

gina.davis@baltsun.com

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