Telegram: School official arrested for stealing $450,000 from district (Updated)

by beth on March 4, 2016

The Telegram & Gazettte reports that police arrested a Northborough-Southborough schools employee on Wednesday:

Fueled by an addiction to painkillers and cocaine, the budget officer for the Northborough-Southborough School District stole as much as $450,000 from the district, authorities alleged Thursday in District Court.

Superintendent Christine Johnson called in the police after discovering the theft. At this time, she can’t comment on the case or how it could effect schools’ budget.

The employee allegedly confessed that he first intended to pay cash back, but got in too deep. Based on details in the article, it seems embezzlement may have been going on for a couple of years.

The accused estimated having stolen $200K-400K. But charges filed estimate $450,000. And he admitted to writing checks totaling $150,000 in the last three months.

It appears that he deposited vendors’ payments into petty cash, so he could pilfer money from that account.

For more details, read the full article here.

Updated (3/4/16 9:10 am): For the statement issued by the Superintendent to parents, click here.

Updated (3/4/15 9:13 am): Corrected the link to the story. Original link was to less detailed version on Southborough Wicked Local.

1 SouthboroDave March 4, 2016 at 8:56 AM

That’s a lot of drugs.. and very close to our schools… I have to imagine he might be buying them from a someone distributing in the area? I would imagine this supplier is also supplying students.

I hope they uncover more about how he was accessing $150,000 worth of drugs in 3 months.

2 beth March 4, 2016 at 9:29 AM

I wouldn’t assume that amount was used solely to buy drugs for himself. There are so many questions still unanswered.

This may have been going on for about 2.5 years. If so, that would mean that before December his thefts averaged less than $3,000 per month. So, why the bundle since December? (I have several different theories all fueled by watching too many detective dramas!)

He also claimed a “small portion” was used for personal expenses. So we really don’t know what he was doing with the money, especially the last chunk.

But you are right. As a parent, I certainly hope that the police are trying to figure out who his sources were.

3 Publius March 4, 2016 at 11:46 AM

Sounds like woefully inadequate controls were in place. It is good that it appears to have been caught internally but inexcusable that the theft went on so long by an apparent junior employee. So many many questions. Hopefully someone will step up with answers soon.

4 Al Hamilton March 4, 2016 at 3:49 PM

I agree. It sounds like a lack of controls. When I served on the Advisory committee the Auditor who reviewed our accounts cited the need for better cash control. I don’t know if anything has been done about this but I think it unlikely.

Good cash and financial controls protect the reputations of the many fine people who work for us and deter the few (if any) that might be tempted.

5 Frank Crowell March 4, 2016 at 3:54 PM

I certainly hope all three school committees call for a combined emergency publicly held meeting where some tough questions are answered. Their mess as much as it is Ms Johnson’s.

6 Southborough Town Clerk March 6, 2016 at 8:53 AM

Mr. Crowell,

The Southborough School Committee and the Northborough-Southborough Regional School Committee posted notice of an “Emergency School Committee Meeting” to be held on Monday 3/7/16 at 7 pm in the Algonquin Regional High School Library. The agenda is listed as “To investigate charges of criminal misconduct or to consider the filing of criminal complaints.”

The meeting notice is posted on the Southborough Town website in the Upcoming Meetings section.

Jim Hegarty
Southborough Town Clerk
(508) 485-0710 x 3007

7 Frank Crowell March 6, 2016 at 9:01 PM

Mr Hegarty – thank you for posting this. I am out of town but hope to make it back in time for this meeting.

8 beth March 7, 2016 at 12:01 PM

Don’t come rushing back. You won’t be able to attend!

The agenda for that meeting, and for a similar one with the Southborough School Committee at 4 pm today, is for a Closed Executive Session only.

One of the 10 exceptions to the requirement to hold a meeting in open session is “To investigate charges of criminal misconduct or to consider the filing of criminal complaints.”

9 Tillman March 4, 2016 at 4:12 PM

This is unreal. So, could have been lost through trading? This could explain the heavy losses over the past 3 months. Almost a half million dollars has allegedly disappeared. Does the school system carry any ’embezzlement insurance’ ?

10 SbroMa March 4, 2016 at 5:09 PM

Where is the Business Director in all of this ? One would think that her six figure salary would assure that such an enormous sum of money would not slip through any lack of controls. $450,000???? What are her credentials ? I have been told that she was a former Superintendents secretary. And she’s running a multi million dollar business? What would you expect to happen? I would ask for an immediate resignation.

11 Frank Crowell March 10, 2016 at 10:27 AM

I wonder if it would be too much to ask of elected school committees to tell us a little bit about what is going on internally. I am certain they cannot comment on an ongoing investigation but they certainly can comment on what actions are being taken to ensure this does not happen again (No, I do not think that requires the investigation to be complete).

A week ago this was “a bit too much to comprehend.” All involved should have their arms around it now.

12 Trixie March 10, 2016 at 1:43 PM

These are our tax payments that were stolen and the tax payers of Northboro and Southboro deserve an explanation. Thousands of dollars being deposited to a “petty cash” account is a red flag. Checks made out to “cash” is a huge red flag that should have been noticed by other employees / supervisors. It also should have been picked up during the annual audit. Cash handling should never be done completely by only one person. All checking accounts should be reconciled monthly.

What level employee is this budget officer? Is there fraud insurance and if so will this theft be covered? The theft was a criminal act but the lack of controls that allowed this to go on for so long is also criminal. This is basic accounting and never should have happened in a school district as large as Algonquin.

13 Frank Crowell March 24, 2016 at 2:54 PM

Would it be too much to ask Ms. Harragan Polutchko or Mr. Desmond to comment on the progress of the investigation, cost to recover the money or actions being taken to prevent this from happening again? You are the chairs of the school committees you are on. Plenty of questions unanswered – plenty of town services could have been covered with $450K.

Anything prior to TM?

14 beth March 24, 2016 at 4:44 PM

There was a more updated communication that I shared: http://www.mysouthborough.com/2016/03/14/superintendent-expects-to-recapture-stolen-funds-that-would-result-in-loss-this-year/

The superintendent has made it clear that they don’t want to share information that may hinder recovering any funds or impede prosecution. I’d be surprised if no one raises this at Town Meeting. But I also am doubtful that we will learn much more in the next few weeks or hear anything substantially new that night.

15 Frank Crowell March 24, 2016 at 6:19 PM

That release leaves plenty of questions that could be answered now: cost of audits and other items mentioned ………………how about projected costs? Certainly that can be disclosed prior to TM.

For the most part, my post is not directed at the Superintendent. We have heard from her. We have not heard from either chair. That embezzlement is a complete embarrassment and the taxpayers should hear from the people who appointed the Superintendent. We ask BOS to justify their positions and they reply. Have not seen the town lose $450K by embezzlement. Fairly sure there would be pickets at the Town House if the same non-communication occurred by the BOS after an internal crime.

The education committees should speak. There certainly must be something they can say with respect to what they are doing.

16 Frank Crowell March 29, 2016 at 11:12 AM

I did not expect either school committee chairman to reply to my questions, but that does not stop me from asking more questions. As time goes by, I just find more questions to ask. Maybe one of the committee members will find these useful and take action.

– Will the school committee be performing their own investigation or rely on the auditors and outside consultants hired by the superintendent?

– Is there a policy to test new hires for drug use? If not, why not? The district offices are in a Southborough school building.

– Were there signs of trouble with the accused employee over the last two years? Does the internal working environment offer a chance for employees to discuss suspicious behavior?

– Will improvements suggested by ongoing investigations be put to a vote within each committee and will this be an open session?

17 beth March 29, 2016 at 12:00 PM

This Wednesday at 7:30 pm, the Advisory Committee will be meeting with the School Committee to discuss its budget. You may be able to get some answers there.

I highly doubt they would answer “Were there signs of trouble with the accused employee over the last two years?”. That could easily be covered by the issue of not wanting to impede case. But the other half of the question and other questions may be ones they can answer.

If you can’t make it to the meeting, you could email members of the Advisory Board asking them to consider asking the questions. You can find some members’ emails on their website (Though apparently it is out of date. John Butler is no longer on it and Teresa Mauro isn’t listed.)

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