When Laura Moore learned a Perrysburg woman had been arrested for stealing from two school organizations, she promptly emailed the school district's treasurer, Matt Feasel.
As treasurer of Parents Helping Students/Staff at Perrysburg High School, Ms. Moore told him she was ready and willing to turn over the organization's books for his inspection.
"I've been volunteering forever," Ms. Moore said. "My whole life I've been in positions where I've handled a lot of money, and I safeguard donors' money with my life."
Volunteer organizations across the area were jolted to attention last week by the news that Kiki Lorann, 35, had been charged with two counts of grand theft and one count of theft for allegedly taking $48,727 from the Perrysburg Elementary Parents Association, $43,792 from the Toth Parent Club, and $3,067 from Perrysburg Sting Baseball.
"It's a tremendously unfortunate situation, particularly in these volunteer organizations that rely so much on trust, that there are people out there who are willing to violate that level of trust," said Wood County Prosecutor Paul Dobson, whose office has handled numerous embezzlement cases from businesses and nonprofit groups in recent years. "The best we can hope for is that the publicity we get from some of these cases makes people become more vigilant in asking more questions, in looking more closely at financial records and financial statements."
Unfortunately, it sometimes takes getting burned for groups to learn.
After a series of thefts from parent-teacher organizations in the area, including Hawkins Elementary in West Toledo in 2004, Toledo Public Schools put together a manual on how to reduce the risk of volunteers stealing from the treasury.
Jim Gault, chief academic officer for TPS, said the parent groups work closely with the building principal; bank statements are mailed directly to the school; two signatures are required when a check is made out from the group's account, and the group has bonding insurance.
"This is just a way to protect the dollars they raise and make sure they go where they're supposed to go -- to improve academic opportunities for students," Mr. Gault said.
Kate Fineske, president of the Parent School Council for Sylvania schools, said her group sponsored a forum last fall for parent organizations that focused on finances and best practices for handling money.
"What we try to do is help inform parents and be proactive," she said. "It's really important that parents know what they're supposed to do with money."
Mr. Dobson said often groups are so happy to have someone volunteer to take care of the finances that they don't take the time to look into their qualifications or make sure a second set of eyes is looking at the books. They should.
"If there's a pot of money, there's that temptation, so I would be hesitant to say here's what these organizations did wrong or are doing wrong," Mr. Dobson said. "It's more valuable to say here are some precautions, and the main one is to not have one person who is in charge of bringing the money in and taking the money out, having more than one person who needs to sign checks, not having a debit card that any one person has responsibility over, laying out ahead of time what the duties and responsibilities of the treasurer are going to be."
He said fellow volunteers can't be afraid they'll offend someone by discussing and enforcing a system of checks and balances.
"A lot of times people can be very hesitant because they think, 'I like that person and I'm going to offend that person,' " he said. "The response is to say, 'We're trying to establish procedures here. I trust you, but I don't know who's coming next. We're trying to establish procedures that survive us.' "
Fellow officers should have access to original bank statements and compare them monthly to their treasurer's report. Mr. Dobson recalled one case in which a church secretary-treasurer provided reports to the church council that showed they had tens of thousands of dollars in the bank when in fact they were in the red. At another church organization, stolen funds came to light when the board finally demanded to see the bank statements and found that its volunteer treasurer had tried to cut and paste figures on the statements to match her bogus reports.
Ms. Moore said that when she was treasurer for the Junior League of Toledo, she was in charge of a six-digit bank account. At Perrysburg High School, the parent organization whose funds she oversees generally has less than $5,000 in its account.
"I don't care if I was managing $150 or $150,000, it's all managed the same with checks and balances, safeguards," Ms. Moore said. "You guard every single penny because it's paramount to any organization that you safeguard all money because you have to continue to earn and keep the trust of those affiliated with your program."
"That's what is so frustrating when something like this happens," she added. "It taints others' opinions of nonprofit volunteer organizations -- not just potentially the one that was affected, but any one."
It's a fear that has been borne out in some cases.
When the volunteer treasurer for United Christian Fellowship at Bowling Green State University was convicted in 2007 of stealing $55,000 from the group, financial support dipped. The drop in donations, coupled with the stolen funds, nearly crushed the organization, said the Rev. Bill Thompson, campus minister.
"There was a lot of mistrust that was built up over this and around this because [the treasurer] not only embezzled the money, she tried to cover her tracks in a way that caused suspicion not only about her but about how we kept our books," he recalled.
The ministry sold off property it owned and now rents a house in Bowling Green it calls Common Good -- a place where BGSU students of all beliefs learn to respond to other people's needs through service-learning projects.
"The mistrust and suspicion has been really sad, but we've survived, and we're in a house and it's really better for what our mission is," Mr. Thompson said.
In the wake of Mrs. Lorann's arrest last week, Perrysburg Schools Superintendent Tom Hosler said the district planned to form a committee to recommend a number of policies for its parent organizations to follow, including doing a background check on its volunteers.
Court records, accessible to the public online, show Mrs. Lorann was convicted of passing bad checks in 2009 in Fulton County. She was charged with theft in Toledo Municipal Court in 2001 and 2002 and with passing bad checks in 2006, but all three of those cases were dismissed after the victims failed to appear in court.
While conducting a background check would have revealed that history, Mr. Dobson said in most cases, perpetrators have no criminal record. "Years ago, we prosecuted a sheriff's deputy for theft. We've prosecuted Boy Scout leaders and members of church groups, and in many of those cases you wouldn't find a criminal history," he said.
Perrysburg Police Detective Doug Kinder said that since Mrs. Lorann's arrest, the department has received reports of possible missing funds from other organizations.
"Because of how public this has gotten, there has been a lot of talk, a lot of phone calls, a lot of questions," he said.
"The reality of it is some of it is relevant and the majority of it is not. We're trying to sort through all of this."
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6129.