Mary Schneir arrived in court Thursday with a personal check, ready to pay back the more than $19,000 she stole from the Bethel Park Junior Cheerleaders organization.
She also brought a letter from her doctor that showed a depression diagnosis and publicly apologized to the organization she embezzled from across two years.
Despite her efforts, Common Pleas Judge Anthony Mariani of Allegheny County sentenced the 42-year-old to 30 days in the county jail, followed by eight months of house arrest and probation, saying she repeatedly lied to those who trusted her.
The end of the legal ordeal was a relief to those representing the cheerleading group in court Thursday. But now it's tasked with paying back parents who donated the money -- and repairing its image in the community.
It's no small feat.
"For many organizations, once you lose your reputation, it's gone. People lose trust in you," said Gary M. Grobman, who wrote a book published last fall titled, "Ethics in Nonprofit Organizations: Theory and Practice."
The investigation into Schneir's actions started after the cheerleading group elected a new board and Schneir left her post as president, Bethel Park Detective Fred Paganico said when the charges were filed.
"She was in control of everything, so no one really questioned her when she did the bank statements," he said.
"And if it's someone you trust, it's easy to think, 'Well they would never do that,' " said Nicholas P. Cafardi, a professor at the Duquesne University School of Law who has written about the law of nonprofit, tax-exempt organizations.
Schneir initially "made excuses" when asked by other board members for the organization's bank statements, police wrote in a criminal complaint. Members noticed a string of strange cash withdrawals and thousands of dollars in credit card payments and notified police.
Schneir told investigators at the time that she was addicted to shopping and used the money on diet pills, luggage and remodeling her home.
Cases like this one seem random, but they happen often enough, Mr. Cafardi said.
"It seems to me we read a lot of stories like that," he said.
For example, in 2004, the treasurer of the North Allegheny Junior Tiger Pride Wrestling Association was sentenced to probation after he pleaded guilty to embezzling thousands from the athletic booster club's coffers.
And Lutual Love, 65, a former president of the Pittsburgh Mifflin PreK-8 parent-teacher association accused of using anti-bullying program money for personal expenses, is scheduled for trial on felony theft charges in May.
Experts in nonprofit management say that while many small organizations don't have the oversight that the large ones might enjoy, there are things they can do: Two names on every check, for example, is a good place to start.
"The first thing is they should never let a single individual have complete control over the money," Mr. Grobman said.
Even with more than one pair of eyes, problems can emerge.
In 1993, two top officers in the Brookline Little League Association were charged with theft and later pleaded guilty. As a result of their dealings, the group created a rule that a finance committee must approve expenditures above $100 and the entire board must do so for expenses above $1,000. Also, an audit committee and a professional auditor review records.
On Thursday, Schneir pleaded guilty to theft by unlawful taking, and an access device fraud charge was withdrawn. She wept throughout most of the proceeding and offered an apology shortly before her sentencing.
"I truly am sorry," she said, adding that she wanted to "take responsibility" from "day one" but was advised by her attorney to wait until the case was settled.
Three women with ties to the group told the judge how the crime affected them and the organization's reputation in the community.
"Mary took my friendship, trust and kindness and manipulated it," Lisa Gawlik said.
"I spent 22 years of my life to make this a good organization. In two years, Mrs. Schneir tried to destroy it," said Judith Volpatti, listed as the coach coordinator on the association's website.
Later, she added: "I feel like she needs more than a slap on the wrist."
Molly Born: email@example.com or 412-263-1944. First Published March 20, 2014 11:50 AM