Sandra Yost was a trusted member of the community. You don’t get to handle a youth sports league’s finances as a volunteer unless you are trusted.
Yet there she was, the former treasurer of the Fulton United Soccer Club in Gloversville, standing before a Fulton County judge this past week to plead guilty to stealing nearly $20,000 from the youth sports group.
She is not the first from such a league position to find herself in that position.
The Gloversville woman bowed her head and fought tears, dabbing her eyes. She was mostly quiet; the apology will likely come at sentencing. The money could be returned.
But the trust? That’s gone.
The crimes committed against these volunteer organizations are numbing in their frequency and uniformity. And the script is almost invariable: A trusted member of the community, hardly a career criminal, is overwhelmed by the temptation of cash on hand. They then skim money, in 10s and 20s and chunks. Many rationalize they’ll return the cash.
“It starts out as small loan: ‘Hey, I’ll pay it back,’ ” state police BCI Capt. Scott Coburn said. “Then it gets bigger. Then it’s ‘I got to make a car payment’ ”
They don’t pay the money back. They get arrested. The people who trusted them express shock.
Then the process repeats itself at a different sports league or firehouse or even a school, across the Capital Region and around the country. A longtime trusted volunteer is arrested. There is a plea. Only then do these organizations implement stricter financial safeguards.
In Schoharie County, the treasurer of the Cobleskill Bowling League was charged earlier this month with skimming half of the $20,000 in fees he collected since September. The league, which rolls out of Cobleskill Bowling Center, became aware of the theft after checks started to bounce, state police said.
Often the common denominator in these crimes is that a league or volunteer organization does not have a detailed set of guidelines to monitor treasurers, often longtime fellow volunteers.
“It just makes it easier for that person, because no one is watching,” Coburn said.
(That harkens the granddaddy of Capital Region treasurer ripoffs: the $499,413 stolen from the Charlton Fire District from 2005 to 2010. Virginia J. DeCapria’s theft was different in some respects from the other volunteer organizations that get fleeced on a regular basis — she was a paid employee of the district rather than a volunteer, and the district recouped more than half of the money through its insurer — but there was the same lack of oversight and the same feelings of shock and betrayal within the organization when she finally got caught. She began a three-to-nine-year prison term in May 2013.)
Yost, the longtime Fulton United treasurer, got caught only after a new board took over and noticed financial discrepancies before alerting authorities.
“What’s common in these cases is a certain individual who will emerge as a super-volunteer,” Fulton County District Attorney Louise Sira said. “While other people’s lives have real demands, it’s really easy to relinquish oversight and control.
“It creates an environment where that individual becomes the organization. What’s also common is that it creates an atmosphere of entitlement. Once that sense of entitlement is there, it’s easy to create shortcuts.”
Sira said her office handles at least a dozen cases a year where a person who controls the purse strings of a nonprofit, volunteer organization or even business takes advantage of a lack of oversight for illegal financial gain. In a notorious 2011 case, Brian VanAlstyne, the former commander of the Gloversville VFW post, was sentenced to two to six years in prison after stealing nearly $200,000 from three local veterans groups.
“VanAlstyne’s crimes cut deeper than mere financial impact,” then-Police Chief Edgar Beaudin said after sentencing. “These veterans have suffered shame, embarrassment and betrayal.”
Law enforcement officials said there is a simple solution to protect volunteer organizations from theft — and money handlers from temptation.
“You need checks and balances,” Coburn said.
Call it the buddy system. Checks can be written only with the signatures of two people. Treasurers must file monthly reports, with backing documentation (such as bank statements), to a board. Expenditures should be discussed before getting made.
Sira said human nature makes some organizations leery to install oversight over an otherwise trusted treasurer. “Who wants to offend that person?” she said. “Otherwise they may be doing all the work themselves.” That said, the dangers of implementing oversight is far outweighed by the benefits — and could deter an otherwise law-abiding person from reaching into the till.
“It’s access and opportunity and a lack of oversight,” Sira said of these crimes. “It’s very easy to get into that pattern of ‘Let the super-person handle it.’ ”
The problem is that person never looks so super standing before a judge.