They raise millions of dollars each year to support schools, often partnering with businesses to help local children, rarely suspecting danger from within.
Volunteer groups like PTAs, Girl Scouts and booster clubs with limited financial oversight recently found they had fallen victim to thefts that have funneled amounts approaching $150,000 already this year in the Atlanta area.
Those accused of stealing crumpled bills from concession stands, Christmas tree sales and car washes make unlikely criminals: mothers trusted to look out for their community’s children.
At least four parents in metro Atlanta have been arrested so far in 2013 in a series of similar crimes. They were typically leaders in their groups with access to cash raised at fundraisers, and they are accused of taking a piece for themselves before the money reached the bank.
In the largest case, the former treasurer for the E. Rivers Elementary School Parent-Teacher Association is accused of stealing more than $80,000 over 2 1/2 years from an organization that raised between $70,000 and $107,000 a year from 2009 to 2011, according to tax records. Maryam Arjomand, 48, was indicted April 23 on theft and forgery counts. Her attorney didn’t return phone calls and an email seeking comment.
The money was intended for students’ field trips, school books and pizza parties, but instead children were deprived of some parent support while the money was missing, said Elise Lowry, who was president of the Buckhead school’s PTA last year. The PTA eventually recovered the money.
The recent thefts have shown PTAs and other nonprofit organizations that they’re seen as easy targets by those who take advantage of the confidence parents place in them.
“You think that if they’re volunteering for the good of the school, they’re probably a good person,” Lowry said.
PTAs are locally run nonprofit groups that advocate for children, give parents a voice and raise money to pay for education items that a school wouldn’t otherwise cover, including extra classroom supplies, new blackboards and teacher appreciation events.
Their average annual budget is about $22,000, with most of the money coming from fundraisers and parents contributing dues starting at about $5, according to PTO Today magazine.
Parents often feel uncomfortable policing their friends and neighbors, which creates an opportunity for sneaky snatching from cash-based fundraisers unless groups take steps to protect themselves. Business donations to PTAs are also at risk because their contributions are mixed with other funds and overseen by volunteer money managers.
“It’s a combination of an individual finding themself in a position where the money is accessible, it’s easy, and frequently that person is the only individual who’s handling the money,” said Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds. “It all boils down to simple greed.”
Most of the time, victim groups just want their money back, Reynolds said. If they’re repaid, prosecutors will often agree to giving the defendant probation. If not, jail time would be considered.
The problem of thieves targeting school groups extends across the country. Earlier this month, a PTA treasurer in New York who pleaded guilty to embezzling $82,000 was arrested after she failed to make scheduled payments. In another case, two parents in Middleboro, Mass., face embezzlement charges for stealing $30,000 from a local school PTA.
At Indian Knoll Elementary in Canton, the former PTA treasurer is accused of taking $12,449 from the PTA and $5,883 from a booster club before depositing it into the bank, said Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Lt. Jay Baker. Kim Turman, 40, was arrested April 22.
When the PTA uncovered inconsistencies in its financial records, the group called parent Kelly Poole, a former accountant, to do an audit.
“There are a lot of built-in safeguards, but unfortunately if someone wants to beat the system, they’re going to find a way to do it,” she said.
Parent-teacher groups can protect themselves by reviewing the budget at the beginning of the school year, making sure their treasurers present financial reports at each meeting, filing required annual tax forms, conducting annual audits and counting money twice after fundraisers, said Donna Kosicki, president of the Georgia PTA. She said PTAs should buy insurance to cover potential losses.
“Whatever it is that causes a person to do this, it’s not the right thing to do,” Kosicki said. “Even if it’s a friend, you have to follow the process for that money to be returned.”
PTAs that attend training and follow financial procedures are usually well-protected, she said.
The lessons of PTAs are also being learned in other volunteer groups that have dealt with recent thefts.
In Cobb County, Dawn Brown Martin, 50, who was serving as vice president for bingo fundraisers, was arrested Feb. 2 based on a warrant that accused her of stealing $40,117 from the Wheeler High School booster club.
Then on May 7, MerTinya DeLoatch, who was serving as cookie money manager for her daughter’s East Point Girl Scout troop was arrested. Police said the troop never received $700 it was supposed to earn based on $4,900 worth of cookie sales.
“Everyone thinks it’s not going to happen to us, but you see hundreds of cases every year. It’s not like these people are wearing a black mask and a bandana. They look like everyone else in the PTA,” said Tim Sullivan, the founder of PTO Today magazin. “It’s distressingly common, and not just in PTAs, but also in volunteer organizations in general.”
How volunteer nonprofits can safeguard fundraising
Require two people to count cash and record amounts in a log before turning it over to the treasurer for deposit
Designate someone other than the treasurer to review monthly bank statements
Require the treasurer to present a financial report at each meeting
Require both the president and treasurer to sign checks
Conduct annual audits
Sources: Georgia PTA, PTO Today magazine