The former Worcester County Teachers Association (Maryland) treasurer, Denise Inez Owens, has been arrested and charged with the theft of almost $540,000 from the union. Although the theft became public only this January, the crime actually took place before March 2009. That was when Owens, who was then using her married name of Denise Tull, was forced out of her position after she agreed to reimburse the union for her theft. Union leaders reported the crime and the settlement to the bonding company, but chose not to notify law enforcement officials.
The theft, and the subsequent settlement, only became public as a result of a routine public records search when the WCTA lost its tax-exempt status after reporting an embezzlement of over $100,000 to the IRS. The local police department opened an investigation into Owens, headed by Detective Kyle Clark, once the theft became public and it culminated with charges being filed against her.
Police in February began a theft investigation. It revealed that while treasurer, Owens allegedly had written numerous unauthorized checks to herself and others, and made withdrawals from the account for "personal issues and debt," police said. Clark declined to elaborate on the nature of those issues.
According to officers involved with the investigation, union officials were mostly uncooperative with law enforcement.
When detectives met with WCTA leadership, "they denied any involvement with what was going on," Clark said.
"They didn't necessarily say it didn't happen," he said. "They didn't want to talk about it. They weren't cooperating."
When asked to comment initially after the story first hit the press, WCTA president Helen Schoffstall said that the union didn't lose any money. Still, the theft happened. Where did the money come from, and how did the employee of a group with less than 600 members manage to get her hands on that kind of money?
It turned out that the money came from dues collected for the state and the national parent groups that Owens was supposed to be forwarding up the chain, but instead kept for herself.
When Owens was arrested, the Maryland State Education Association released a statement explaining the situation and how it was handled. The statement said that the theft was first uncovered when the WCTA fell behind on the payment of state and national dues. When the arrears were uncovered, the association confronted Owens and confirmed the theft. After Owens resigned and agreed to repay the money, a full-scale forensic investigation was triggered with the results submitted to the bonding company.
The investigation determined that the funds in question were owed to MSEA and NEA rather than WCTA, and that the local dues money was not part of the mishandled funds. Ultimately, the bonding company's investigation was closed with no criminal or civil action and an agreement for restitution from Ms. Owens. Following this incident, MSEA and WCTA immediately implemented procedural changes to create greater transparency and oversight and avoid any future similar occurrences. At no time was there a loss of programs or services to WCTA members due to this issue.