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Hart pleads guilty, says gambling led to theft

March 25, 2004|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

Former Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Ben Hart was sentenced Wednesday to serve six months in jail after he admitted stealing more than $15,000 from the tourism bureau to feed a gambling addiction.

Hart, 54, pleaded guilty Wednesday to stealing $15,526.49 from the convention and visitors bureau between Dec. 30, 2002 and Oct. 13, 2003.

Washington County Circuit Judge John H. McDowell sentenced Hart to serve five years in state prison, but suspended all but six months of that sentence, which he ordered to be served at the Washington County Detention Center.

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McDowell told Hart that "Lots of things can be said about you and your appearance here in court ... You violated a position of trust."

Hart was forced to resign from the convention and visitors bureau on Oct. 27 amid allegations that money was missing from the nonprofit organization's coffers.

Before he was sentenced, Hart choked back tears after turning to a group of friends to thank them for their support.

Holding a written statement, Hart said, "I'd like to really thank..." and began to cry. He handed the statement to his attorney, D. Bruce Poole, who read it to McDowell.

"I have made an egregious mistake and have betrayed the public trust vested in me ... I have had a latent addiction for much of my life, but it was only when I discovered the slot machines in Charles Town that the disease manifested itself," Poole read from the statement.

Washington County Assistant State's Attorney Robert C. Veil Jr. said that on Oct. 24, members of the CVB discovered money missing from the petty cash account. They contacted the Hagerstown Police Department, which found checks - some amounting to $500 - made payable to Hart.

Veil said some of the checks were "possibly" cashed at Charles Town Races & Slots.

"This situation has left (Hart) entirely destitute," said Poole, who said Hart has lost his car, health insurance, life insurance and retirement money.

Poole said that since February 2000, when Hart first visited Charles Town Races & Slots to play slots, he has acquired a $100,000 debt because of his addiction to the machines.

Poole said Hart at one point went to the race track up to two or three times a day to play slots. He said when Hart took the money from the CVB, he had every intention of paying it back.

"He started down the slippery slope and got deeper and deeper in debt," he said.

Because of his debt, his actions and the scrutiny that followed them, Poole asked the court to sympathize with Hart. Poole said Hart is a man well respected in the country for his tourism expertise.

Art Callaham, executive director of the Greater Hagerstown Committee, and J. Matthew Neitzey, executive director of the Prince George's County (Md.) Conference and Visitors Bureau, testified that Hart is not a bad man, but a man who made a mistake.

Callaham said Hart helped make Washington County the third most-visited county in Maryland.

Neitzey called Hart "a fearsome competitor" in the tourism business.

The restitution to the tourism bureau must be paid within two years of Hart's release, McDowell ordered.

Poole said CVB officials would knock off $483.25 from the restitution amount, which they said was used to pay for a "legitimate travel expense."

Hart's friends collected $4,500 on his behalf to be paid Wednesday to the CVB, Poole said.

In a plea agreement between the state and Hart, Veil asked for no less than six months jail time in exchange for the guilty plea to felony theft scheme of more than $500.

McDowell told Hart that the charge carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. He said he was looking at the weight of the crime and the loss of trust when he imposed the sentence upon Hart.

McDowell ordered that Hart, during his three-year supervised probation period, must attend Gambler's Anonymous meetings. Poole said Hart attended such meetings in Frederick, Md., before he lost his car.

After the plea hearing, Jeff Yingling, convention and visitors bureau accountant, said everybody in the bureau likes Hart.

"We had to let the chips fall where they may because it just got out of hand," Yingling said.

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