When being sorry isn't good enough

February 19, 2006|By Lyn Widmyer

I used to think the reason why executives such as those at Enron could steal millions from their employees was because they had no personal connection to individual workers. I used to think Tyco's chairman Dennis Kozlowski would never have raided his company's treasury if only he knew his employees better. I used to think stealing money from people you actually know would be harder than raiding an anonymous pot of funds labeled "corporate income."

A recent case here in Jefferson County, W.Va., has smashed my Pollyanna beliefs.

On Feb. 2, Michael Cross, a former Charles Town insurance agent, pleaded guilty to taking thousands of dollars from clients for insurance policies he never issued. His clients included a church, the Old Opera House (a community performing arts center) and the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce. Cross reimbursed the people and organizations he bilked to the tune of $67,652. He apologized, avoided jail time, and returned to his residence in Florida.


"I can't tell you how sorry I am," Cross said in court to his victims.

Well, Mr. Cross, I just don't think that's good enough.

Many years ago, my husband Ron was one of the volunteers who helped start the Old Opera House, a local organization fleeced by Cross. I know how much work people put into restoring the building and how hard people then and now work to raise money to keep the Old Opera House running. For someone living in Charles Town to bilk this community project of $16,487.71 is unconscionable.

Those of us involved in community groups know how much work it is to raise money. I have served platters of spaghetti for the PTO, sold raffle tickets for First in Your Family, worked at endless yard sales for the League of Women Voters, worked hours at library book sales and served enough nachos with cheese at the Band Boosters concession stand to clog the arteries of an elephant. All this effort to raise a couple of thousand dollars.

That is why I have no sympathy for people who raid the coffers of community groups. When a secretary embezzles money from an elementary school PTO or a treasurer siphons proceeds from Girl Scout cookie funds, they are stealing more than just money. They are stealing the hours and hours of volunteer effort it took to raise each and every dollar.

People who steal from community groups know exactly what the loss of funds will mean, exactly who will be hurt and exactly how much personal sacrifice went into raising those funds. Unlike officers of giant multi-national corporations, people who abscond with funds at the local level cannot detach themselves from the victims of their crime.

Restitution for stealing from community groups should include a requirement to work at fundraisers (tasks requiring the handling of money should be avoided). Spending several hundred hours distributing cookie dough or filling endless orders of nachos and cheese or cleaning up after a community spaghetti dinner would be fitting punishment for people who have so little respect for volunteers.

Lyn Widmyer is a Charles Town, W.Va., resident who writes for The Herald-Mail. Her e-mail address is

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