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Stolen Trust: Theft at the Meetinghouse

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“Let us then try what love can do.”
—William Penn

Small, unprogrammed Friends meetings often have to search widely to find people to fill important positions, such as the clerkship and treasurer. Chattanooga (Tenn.) Meeting, with an average attendance of 15–22 on Sundays, is no exception.

So in 2004, when a new treasurer was needed following a sudden resignation, our nominating committee was pleased to suggest a relatively new attender, with a background in accounting, for the meeting’s approval. Subsequently, he became a member and an active part of the meeting, attending nearly every Sunday, serving on a number of committees, and making himself very useful in numerous ways. Adept with computers and experienced in information technology, he was often on-call to members and attenders needing advice or repair of their machines.

His financial reports, presented at the meeting for business each month, often had minor errors such as a miscalculation of a few dollars for a usual expenditure, but the final report for the records was corrected, and all were satisfied. Getting a notice about an unpaid bill was a red flag, but he paid it quickly so that any doubters were reassured. Donations from several members were not deposited on occasion, an oversight chalked up to the treasurer’s busy life with several jobs or his divorce. The meeting had never had an audit, so he joined others in the meeting to urge that we do so, even suggesting a woman whose competence he vouched for. The fact that her task was not undertaken after more than two years did not bother most Friends since there seemed to be problems more important than a lengthy delay in auditing.

In mid-2011, the meeting revitalized the Finance Committee with new members. More importantly, it was decided that the committee would now prepare the budget (a task heretofore undertaken by the treasurer), in addition to generally overseeing the finances. The new committee members immediately assumed active roles, working amicably with the treasurer. Their first goal was to make records and accounts more transparent—an end the treasurer agreed was needed and necessary. Things fiscal—perhaps with the exception of the delayed auditing—seemed to be going well at Chattanooga Meeting.

As the strengthened Finance Committee tried to set up new systems leading to more transparency, the treasurer reacted with what, in hindsight, appeared to be subtle resistance, not obvious to the meeting as a whole, but clear enough to raise some misgivings within the committee. He forgot key papers and passwords, missed a meeting or two, or proved unprepared when he did show up. Frustrations mounted within the committee but were not sensed by those outside.

Imagine the shock when the treasurer and a friend showed up at my home one Monday evening in early October 2011 (I was meeting co-clerk that year) to reveal that he had been taking money from the meeting’s treasury to an amount later determined at more than $33,000. No one knew how he spent the money—even he does not recall—except for one instance when he took a group of homeless people to a local restaurant and paid with a meeting check; no receipts or check registers remained to prove, as he explained, that he spent the money mostly for needs of the homeless. Anxious that the word not go beyond the meeting, perhaps endangering his job in information technology, he pledged himself to resign his position as treasurer, repay the stolen money with interest, purchase a life insurance policy to cover the loss in case of death, and go to counseling. He had already planned to have a meeting about the matter with the Finance Committee two days later.

Our monthly meeting for business, as the schedule would have it, occurred on the very next Sunday following meeting for worship. The treasurer was in his usual place and confessed all his derelictions, his thieving, and his falsifying monthly financial reports to hide his theft. He believed he had suffered from a nervous breakdown, aggravated by his divorce. He resigned as treasurer, and the betrayed meeting appointed a new one and authorized a number of housekeeping treasury measures.

Later, the new treasurer labored—nearly single-handedly, for the former treasurer proved most unhelpful—to get treasury records dating back to 2004 straightened out and revealed that the meeting had $55 in its checking account. The security of thinking the meeting had more than $20,000 available for its budget and contingencies evaporated. The Finance Committee swung into action and tackled several projects at once: documenting unauthorized withdrawals, developing a proposed budget (based on best guesses), corresponding with members and attenders to lay out the need for trust and continued support (an approach that worked amazingly well), and finding ways to pay bills and create a system of financial checks and balances. Over the course of the next year, we discovered that insurance on the meetinghouse had lapsed, as had its termite protection and alarm system; our property taxes were also in arrears. Without specific directions, Friends deferred to the Ministry and Oversight Committee to search for a clear path to healing.

As a historian, I did some research on how Friends in earlier periods dealt with transgressions of its members. One book in my library was London Yearly Meeting’s Rules of Discipline of 1834, a source that turned out to be invaluable for us despite our situation taking place on another continent and more than 175 years later, after the occurrence of many profound changes within our society. Perhaps the most important takeaway was a general principle, quoting a directive from 1743: “In the love of Christ, we earnestly exhort you to watch diligently over the flock, and deal in due time, and in a spirit of Christian love and tenderness, with all such as walk disorderly amongst you, in order to reclaim and restore them by brotherly counsel and admonition.” Needless to say, “dealing with disorderly walkers” was not something twenty-first-century Friends were familiar with or had much experience doing.

Sentiment among Friends ranged from wanting to overlook the transgressions entirely to wanting to take the matter to court, either civilly or criminally. The Ministry and Oversight Committee found unity in appointing a subcommittee to meet with the treasurer and to seek his formal agreement to a process of restitution and restoration, something he had already pledged to do. (The committee’s clerk, an attorney, did meet with a lawyer to get advice, but the committee chose to move forward on its own.)

Accordingly, a subcommittee of three (two men and one woman) met with him on October 25; the members stressed their concern and love for him, even as they specified his transgressions against the meeting. The four together agreed that he should work with the Finance Committee to set up a schedule for repayment of the lost funds, turn in his key to the meetinghouse, and resign from all committees he was on except for Property-Oversight and Website. He should also supply tangible proof that the money he used to repay the to-be-determined funds came from him directly so as to be sure that he was not embezzling from someone else to repay us. He obligated himself to acknowledge his actions to the meeting so that there would be a full record in existence. They reminded him that it was his duty henceforth to “walk in your whole life consistently with Friends faith and practice” and promised no legal action so long as he complied. Disownment by the meeting, the subcommittee advised, was always available.

The November meeting for business heard this report and the presiding clerk’s remark that the previous six weeks had been the most “trying crisis” in the meeting’s history. The former treasurer admitted to “perverting everything the meeting professes” and “lying to the meeting”; he also described his action as “evil.” In response to an inquiry regarding availability of the minutes, the meeting decided to distribute the minutes of this meeting for business as usual, but only share the subcommittee’s full report with interested members or attenders via request from one of the co-clerks.

So far, nearly two years later, things seem to be working well. The stolen funds are being replenished through automatic deduction from the former treasurer’s salary at a rate of $500 per month (estimating five and a half years for full repayment); he, our Friend, has attended at least two meetings for worship, holds down one full-time and two part-time jobs, and is in frequent contact with some members in the meeting. The anger at him has not totally dissipated, but based on all outward signs, Friends have moved beyond it. The subcommittee has met with him on two occasions and once considered allowing the payments to be reduced to $400 a month, but our former treasurer wants no change. He now has a number of medical problems and is on disability that may require some adjustment of his remittances.

The whole experience has been salutary for all concerned. We have gained renewed appreciation of earlier Friends for their dealings with disorderly walking, and we have learned how we, as a community of faith, can—must!—oversee those associated with us. With humility, we now fully affirm the fundamental truth that discipline, when exercised in love and in following with Christ’s spirit, is not a concept to be abandoned by unprogrammed, twenty-first-century Friends. Let us indeed see what love can do in relatively small matters such as individual transgressions, as well as larger ones such as social justice and world peace.

Larry Ingle, a member of Chattanooga (Tenn.) Meeting, has been active in it and Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting and Association for many years. His latest book, tentatively titled Nixon’s First Cover-up: A Religious Biography of a Quaker President, will be published by the University of Missouri Press.

Posted in: Features, February 2014

6 Responses to Stolen Trust: Theft at the Meetinghouse

  1. Chester Kirchnman February 4, 2014 at 9:07 am #

    City & State
    Jonestown, PA
    ‘Stolen Trust: Theft in the Meetinghouse’ is an excellent story on handling dishonesty occurring in many spots of the United States. Many times, such issues have become major publicity in local communities and false sense of actually knowing the unknown is presented by various news methods. It is similar to believing in forcing others to live in a ‘virtual reality’ a few see as the ‘correct way’.
    Some individuals working for this false virtual reality, like a Jonestown Pennsylvania State Police Officer, will operate on lies to punish someone for touching someone stealing their property. She would not even talk with the individual who called her. She only wished to believe lies and abet the thieves, to make those not living in her virtual reality become like her. In doing this, her salary becomes a theft from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania citizens.
    The School Board of Eastern Lebanon Area School District tried to steal from the Commonwealth in another way. They obtained a Grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Education to build an Intermediate School with a claim two of their Elementary Buildings were no longer usable. However, upon moving the young children into the new building, did they close those ‘usable’ buildings? No, they rented the buildings to Conrad Weiser School District and Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit, until the Department of Education discovered the action.
    The Meetinghouse solved a dishonesty on a one-on-one basis to not teach others the possible actions to be taken for their own virtual realities. The more we present this type of dishonesty to others, some will try to find a way of ‘getting away with it’. To reduce the number of persons doing the wrong, it might be thought essential details of the situations need be presented to all. However, others may believe only presenting the solution to the dishonesty is more appropriate. The answer lies in the title: Trust.
    What do you Trust?

  2. Ms. Sharlene Roberts-Caudle February 6, 2014 at 12:05 am #

    City & State
    Exeter Ca
    Often people would rather believe all is well than to get involved in the hard work. A good story and reminder.

  3. Samuel Mahaffy February 18, 2014 at 12:00 pm #

    City & State
    Seattle, WA
    I encourage Friends to bring their voice in support of the growing movement for restorative justice. It is a model desperately needed in our society that is deeply congruent with the testimony of Friends over the ages.

  4. Susan Long February 18, 2014 at 3:50 pm #

    City & State
    Houston TX
    If the treasurer had not confessed, how would the meeting have discovered the problem? Is there a procedures for a regular internal audit now?

    • Larry Ingle February 19, 2014 at 3:18 pm #

      City & State
      Chattanooga, Tennessee
      I think the Finance Committee would have found the shortfalls presently, but of course, I don’t know. We do have in place now a provision for an internal audit.

  5. Susan Long February 18, 2014 at 3:51 pm #

    City & State
    Houston TX
    Thank you so much for sharing this!

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