Bookkeeper charged with stealing $300,000 from Butler County school

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A former Catholic school secretary and bookkeeper was arrested on theft charges after auditors accused her of stealing $315,545 in a years-long scheme involving tuition and gift cards.

State police said Thursday that Lynn M. Tomlinson, 43, of Valencia told them she admitted to embezzlement when confronted by officials at Holy Sepulcher Catholic School in May. The thefts were discovered during a routine follow-up in what appeared to be an unpaid tuition bill, church officials said in a statement Thursday.

Ms. Tomlinson told investigators she used the stolen gift cards and cash to pay bills and, later -- when she "got carried away with the spending" -- to buy clothes and jewelry, state police wrote in a criminal complaint.

She was to be arraigned Thursday on three kinds of theft charges, as well as charges of access device fraud and records tampering.

In a letter to parishioners and school parents, the Rev. John Gizler, pastor of Holy Sepulcher Church, wrote that "major diversions" of school tuition, receipts and fundraising money were revealed during a financial investigation that began after the business manager found the unpaid tuition bill in early 2012.

The Rev. Ron Lengwin, spokesman for the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese, said it was learned then that Ms. Tomlinson stole money from the school, though a significant amount less than what she's being charged with now. She asked for forgiveness and promised to pay it back, but the theft was reported to authorities, spurring a diocesan forensic audit from March to November 2012.

In an interview with state police, Ms. Tomlinson said her duties at the school in Middlesex included collecting student tuition checks, assisting the principal and running a fundraising program, in which parents give money to the church in exchange for gift cards, according to the criminal complaint. (Stores give the church gift cards at a discount.)

She told police she was the only person who handled money and checks for tuition and the fundraising program.

Police said Ms. Tomlinson told them if a parent paid $500 in tuition, for example, she would instead put that money in the fundraising program and take out a matching sum -- and sometimes a lesser amount -- in gift cards.

She told police she took mostly Giant Eagle gift cards, which she would use to purchase a Visa pre-paid credit card in a grocery. That way, she told police, she could make purchases at any store that would accept Visa.

When parents paid cash for tuition or the fundraising program, she told police she just pocketed the money, according to the complaint. She said the actions occurred on a regular basis for several years.

Father Lengwin said Ms. Tomlinson went on a leave of absence in March 2012. School officials said they believe the money had been disappearing from late 2006.

Father Lengwin said auditors at the diocese perform routine audits at parishes about every three years. The last one at Holy Sepulcher was done in late 2007, then in March 2011, after Father Gizler was hired.

"Certain things just did not make sense to me when I arrived," Father Gizler said.

At some point, a business manager was also hired.

The loss was felt beyond the school; the parish helps maintain the institution and parish contributions for it were increasing to make up for money missing from school coffers.

"There was enough to pay all those things off, so the parish wasn't making as much as they could have," Father Lengwin said. "And no one really noticed that."

Father Gizler asked the parish and school community to pray for Mrs. Tomlinson.

"While we most assuredly extend forgiveness," he wrote, "we all know that justice must be served as well."

region - neigh_north

Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1944 or on Twitter @borntolede.


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