New Castle News

Closer Look

January 24, 2014

House eyes stiffer penalty for ripping off public, charities

HARRISBURG — Charities and small governments can be easy marks for thieves, and crimes against them result in millions of dollars in lost tax revenues and donations, according to lawmakers pushing for stiffer penalties for those who dip into those accounts.

“It is all too common for youth sports leagues, volunteer fire companies and civic organizations to find their accounts bled dry by dishonest individuals who believe they can get away with it,” said Rep. Daniel McNeill, D-Lehigh, one of the co-sponsors of a bill aimed at the problem.

Lawmakers returning to Harrisburg next week are poised to approve longer prison sentences for those convicted of stealing from charities or local governments — up to 10 years for thefts of more than $100,000, and up to 20 years for more than $500,000.

In addition, any theft from a charity or local government would automatically tack on five years to a standard sentence for theft.

The bill filed by Rep. Ryan MacKenzie, R-Lehigh, was inspired by incidents in the Lehigh Valley, including a case last August in which a township employee was accused of stealing $850,000. In that case, Nancy Tonkin allegedly stole from water and sewer accounts — a crime investigators blamed on losses at slots parlors in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, according to the Associated Press.

Though that case is still pending, MacKenzie said the community outrage is worsened by the perception that those convicted of these crimes usually get off lightly.

It’s a feeling shared in Northumberland Borough where Cynthia Lark, a sewer authority treasurer, was sentenced to one to three years in prison for stealing in excess of $475,000. Court records show she has since repaid $2,471.88 in restitution.

Adam Klock, who joined the Northumberland sewer authority after Lark’s arrest, said he believes the theft may have been larger with the figure only reflecting the authority’s losses over the past five years.

The authority’s budget is about $1 million a year.

Klock said those served by the authority have absorbed the loss in two ways. First, the authority isn’t earning interest on the money it lost. Also, when the authority needed to do capital improvements, it had to take out $1 million more in loans. Klock said the cost of the theft will be felt over the 30-year life of those loans.

MacKenzie’s bill comes amid an epidemic of similar crimes against local governments and charities across the state.

A Washington Post analysis of IRS filings for non-profits showed more than 1,000 across the country that have reported a “significant diversion of assets” since 2008. Of those, 61 charities in Pennsylvania have reported being victimized by employee theft or similar problems.

The Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Organizations trains charity volunteers and staff to avoid being victimized. The association, itself, made the Post’s list because of a problem with a payroll vendor who didn’t pay taxes for the association, said Jennifer Ross, its chief information officer.

“It’s a big issue,” Ross said. “Any single dollar stolen is $1 dollar less that can’t be used for the mission of the organization. If a nonprofit has a budget of $100,000 and has $10,000 stolen, that’s 10 percent.”

Another case arose in Somerset County, where Henry Swinciski was sentenced to at least 11 1/2 months in prison for stealing $820,000 from the Windber Fire Co.

Press accounts reveal other cases that weren’t included in the Post’s review.

In Venango County, the treasurer of the Blooming Valley Fire Department was sentenced to at least 3 1/2 years in prison after pleading guilty to taking $41,243 from the company in 2009.

In Mercer County, the president of the Sharon Little League got probation after he admitted taking $5,000 to pay off gambling debts.

In Lawrence County, Frank Bongivengo Jr., the football coach at New Castle High School, was accused of taking $3,618 from a youth football program in 2011. Rather than face jail time, Bongivengo enrolled in a program for first-time offenders.

(Email: jfinnerty@cnhi.com)

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