Western Pennsylvania ALS charity bounces back from insider theft

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It was a breach of trust -- an executive director stealing more than $100,000 from the charity he was hired to lead.

"In an organization like ours, you have to put significant trust in the individual that you put in place to run the organization," said Eric Zydel, board president for the Western Pennsylvania Chapter of the ALS Association. "Unfortunately, in this case, that trust was betrayed."

On Tuesday, Michael Bernarding, 35, was sentenced to 11 1/???2 to 23 months in jail and seven years probation, and ordered to pay restitution to the chapter.

The Hazelwood man pleaded guilty to theft and misapplication of entrusted funds for stealing $102,000 from the organization that he led for seven years.

The charity supports patients suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, a devastating illness with no cure or effective treatment.

For a charity that relies on the generosity and trust of donors, "this really could have tanked us," Mr. Zydel said.

"An event like this could easily tarnish the reputation of an organization like ours," he said.

Instead, he said, his organization "rose to the challenge."

"We've recovered very, very well," he said. "I believe we're stronger than ever."

The organization generated $800,000 in revenue in 2011 and a record-breaking $860,000 in fiscal year 2012.

Mr. Zydel is hopeful numbers for 2013 will exceed last year's.

Additionally, the chapter has recovered "more than 50 percent" of the stolen money, Mr. Zydel said, and though the restitution schedule has not been finalized, he expects the charity will recover the entire amount taken.

"We are going to be made whole in very short order,and this is entirely behind us," he said. He said the association has instituted new policies and procedures as additional safeguards against theft.

Mr. Zydel credited a "terrific donor base" and the work of an organization made up of five paid staff members, 13 volunteer board members and 50 to 60 volunteers with recovering from the setback.

Most of the funds raised by the chapter go directly toward care of patients with ALS in Western Pennsylvania, Mr. Zydel said.

Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707.

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