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Bureau's ex-chief charged

Criminal summons charges Ben Hart with theft

Criminal summons charges Ben Hart with theft

December 09, 2003|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

Ben Hart, who was forced to resign as executive director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau on Oct. 27, was served Monday with a criminal summons charging him with theft.

Hagerstown police said Hart allegedly stole $15,526.49 from his former employer.

The felony charge of theft scheme over $500 was filed Thursday in Washington County Circuit Court.

If convicted on the charge, Hart could face a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison, a fine of $25,000 or both, said M. Kenneth Long, state's attorney for Washington County.

The money allegedly was taken between Dec. 30, 2002, and Oct. 13, 2003, said Lt. Rick Johnson, investigative services commander for the Hagerstown Police Department.

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Hart allegedly took the money by writing checks from the bureau's petty cash account, making some checks out to himself and some to cash, Johnson said.

Johnson and Long would not provide further information about the alleged crime.

Hart is scheduled to appear in Circuit Court on Dec. 30 for his initial court appearance.

Hart has not responded to requests for comments on his resignation.

Hart's attorney was unavailable for comment Monday.

Hart was put on paid leave and then forced to resign following an internal investigation into allegations of misappropriation of bureau funds, Convention and Visitors Bureau Board Chairman Ron Vitkun said in a letter he made public last month.

Hart was placed on paid administrative leave Oct. 16 after a bureau checking account showed more activity than it should have, Vitkun said.

A letter to Hart dated Oct. 27 and signed by Vitkun says, "As you are aware, the Board of Directors of the Hagerstown/Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau made the decision to place you on administrative leave with pay, effective 10/16/03, pending further investigation of issues related to the misappropriation of CVB funds.

"After further investigation and consideration of the facts in this matter, the Board of Directors has made the decision to terminate your employment effective 10/27/03," the letter continues. "This action is taken in accordance with section 9, termination of your employment agreement.

"This section refers to misconduct as applied to all CVB employees and outlined in the current Policies and Procedures Manual specifically lists in item number 4, theft, pilfering, fraud or other forms of dishonesty," the letter says.

The bureau is audited annually, with the last audit covering the time period ending Dec. 31.

As executive director, Hart was responsible for all operational and administrative aspects of the CVB, including marketing, sales and public relations.

According to a copy of the budget provided by the CVB, $514,101 of the bureau's $786,301 in revenues comes from the county hotel-motel tax.

The Convention and Visitors Bureau was an arm of Washington County government until July 1, 1997, when it became a private enterprise. The main reason the bureau was privatized was because some members wanted more of its money spent on promotion and marketing, and less on administrative costs.

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