Church Ladies Passing the Plate – to Themselves

Many ladies of the church devote countless hours of volunteer work to their congregations — arranging flowers, planning weddings, cooking food for gatherings and doing whatever it takes to service their congregations. But it seems that some of the ladies who work at the church are involved in another not so helpful activity. Stealing.

In my book, “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOs’ Mistakes,” I tell the story of the church bookkeeper who stole money from one church and after being caught, moved to another state and stole millions from that church as well. Seems she is not alone.

Sharon Warunek won’t be going to her job at the Diocese of Scranton in Pennsylvania any longer, after working there for 27 years. As office manager of the church’s Society for the Propagation of Faith, she opened all the checks people donated to benefit the poor. Instead of passing the money along to those who need it most, she instead used at least $340,000 to cover her monthly Discover credit card bill.

Jerri S. Hunter of Virginia managed to embezzle half a million dollars from the Chester United Methodist Church over the course of six years and faces 14 counts of embezzlement. And she wasn’t even caught while she worked there. After she was fired for an unrelated charge, volunteers who were handled tasks she previously performed found discrepancies in the numbers.

Although the Hilltop Lutheran Church in South Bend, Indiana, only had 120 members, the secretary and treasurer Jane Loprest managed to steal $119,000 in the eight years, taking it upon herself to double and triple her pay. She was smart enough to manage the accounts so the church was never overdrawn. Using surveillance photos from the church’s bank, postal inspectors determined she was writing checks but never issuing them, instead cashing them for herself. She is serving a year and a day in prison. At least she said she was sorry.

Sadly, ladies stealing from the church could form their own church circle — and have quite a few members. One out of eight fraud schemes involves a religious organization or other non-profit. And most of the thefts are committed by women.

The gender gap is fairly easily explained when you consider that women handle most of the bookkeeping jobs in the United States. They are the ones with access to the money. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2010, 90 percent of the bookkeepers in the United States were women.

But why churches, religious organizations and non-profits? These are the more vulnerable organizations. They have “have very weak control systems. They’re not operating on big budgets that allow them to spend money on accountants,” according to Chris Marquet, CEO of Marquet International, a security firm based in Boston that tracked worker embezzlement schemes over the past five years.

The lesson here is not to be suspicious of the kindly lady at the reception desk or the office manager at your church office. It’s a lesson for anyone that owns or runs a business, particularly a smaller one that doesn’t have an accounting department. Always take a look at your books and institute controls on financial transactions. Don’t make anyone even attempt to violate the seventh commandment with your business’s money.

Look for me November 10 at 4:30 at the Book Festival of the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. I’ll be discussing my book,  ”How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOs’ Mistakes.” The event is free and open to the public. Click here for more information.

Why I Know Voltaire & Rousseau Weren’t Savvy Business Owners

Lying is hardly a new phenomenon. The Bible tells us the first lie ever told was in the Garden of Eden, when the snake lied to Eve to manipulate her to eat the apple God had forbade her to eat. And look how that turned out: apparently horrible child bearing pains, a ton of farming and a lot less Eden.

Recently the Scrabble Tournament world — yes, there is one — was rocked by a cheating scandal when a young player was disqualified in the national tournament in Orlando when he pocketed blank tiles.

More than 125 Harvard students were accused of cheating by allegedly working together on a take-home exam after being instructed to work alone.

Cheating at Scrabble? And Harvard, the highly revered alma mater of more presidents than any other university? What’s next? Did Mr. Rogers never pay his income taxes?

The press will probably spend a lot of time debating and analyzing whether dishonestly is on the rise among young people. They may blame it on societal problems and the dissolution of the family, or perhaps the pressure put on youth. They may blame the well-publicized, poor examples adults are setting.

Athletes take illegal, performance-enhancing drugs (the most recent case being once-7-time Tour De France champion Lance Armstrong). Journalists fabricate quotes. Money managers steal millions from their clients.

As the Turnaround Authority, I’m not all that interested in exploring the reasons people cheat, lie, embezzle and commit fraud. Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought people were born innately good and turned corrupt through forces of society. Who knows? I’m not hired to delve into embezzlers’ childhoods or wax philosophical.

The important point for my clients is to make them recognize that not everyone is honest. People lie on their résumés to get jobs, then commit fraud or embezzle once they have them.

Some business owners assume their employees are trustworthy. They have what I call the Candide syndrome. In Voltaire’s satiric novel, despite suffering numerous tragedies, Pangloss persisted in his belief that this world is “the best of all possible worlds.”

Our world needs optimists. Heck, if it weren’t for optimists, our country’s founders would never have risked their lives sailing over the Atlantic in search of a better life.

It’s nice to believe that man is innately good and trustworthy and that this is “the best of all possible worlds.” But as a business owner, that’s a luxury you literally can’t afford. You always have to be on alert to the possibility of embezzlement, fraud and theft.

No matter your business, always watch your back door and keep your eyes open.

What’s really going on at your company?