The following article has been udpated to include additional comments.
The former treasurer of the Oxbow Creek Elementary PTO has been charged with stealing nearly $55,000 in funds from the organization. Melissa O’Brien, a 31-year-old Champlin mother of three who attend Oxbow Creek, has been charged with one count of theft by swindle for the funds that disappeared from the account between October and December 2012.
O’Brien first took on the volunteer role of PTO Treasurer in September 2012 at which time there was $11,800 in organization’s bank account at Anoka County Credit Union.
As a result of funds raised by students through a Club’s Choice fundraiser, there was approximately $98,000 in the PTO account by Oct. 4, 2012. PTO President Darla Noah said she was first alerted to a potential problem in early January after another PTO member tried to cash a reimbursement check from the PTO account,
“I was hoping it was some kind of misunderstanding or fluke mistake,” said Noah. She also first thought perhaps somebody else had gained access to the PTO’s bank records because O’Brien claimed she’d sent her laptop off to be fixed when the group met in December 2012.
As Noah began making phone calls and reviewing the PTO’s bank account history she discovered something more sinister was amiss. The PTO summarily removed O’Brien from her duties as treasurer in January 2013.
“The first day emotions were all across the board,” said Noah. “It was unbelievable, from utter shock to anger and betrayal. It was devastating.”
The PTO’s bank account history demonstrated that O’Brien had written checks payable to herself, her husband and her mother in the amount of approximately $25,000. Additionally, she withdrew nearly $11,000 in cash from the account which she failed to use for PTO expenses. Furthermore, O’Brien had set up automatic withdrawals from the PTO account to pay personal bills totalling about $1,100. As part of her responsibilities, O’Brien was supposed to pay the insurance premium on a policy protecting the PTO from theft or losses caused by PTO officers or member malfeasance. However, the report states she failed to do so, putting the PTO in the position of being unable to recoup the lost fund. She is officially charged with one aggravated felony count of theft by swindle for more than $35,000. The charge carries a penalty of 0-20 years in jail and/or up to $100,000 fine.
Noah said O’Brien hadn’t served on the board prior to taking on the position of treasurer; however, she had been in charge of the school’s Holiday Gift Shop fundraiser, was the gym coordinator for Family Fun Night and was a class volunteer and field trip chaperone.
When she was interviewed by authorities on Jan. 10, O’Brien admitted to stealing money from the PTO and told of several schemes she used to accomplish her thefts, including setting up direct payments to her creditors and forging checks. O’Brien also implicated her husband, Dustin O’Brien, 36, who is identified on his criminal complaint as residing in New Hope.
He is also charged with one aggravated felony count of theft by swindle for more than $1,000. The charge carries a penalty of 0-5 years and/or up to a $10,000 fine.
“I want them to do some time. If nothing else, then to send a symbol to everyone else. Don’t rip off your kids’ organization,” stated Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, whose office is prosecuting both individuals.
Freeman said his prosecutor will press for six to nine months jail time in the Hennepin County workhouse and full restitution. Dustin’s next court date is May 22 while Melissa’s next court date is June 4. Neither are currently held in custody. Noah said she believes Melissa was employed at the time they removed her from the PTO Board.
Noah said the PTO typically raises around $80,000 annually so the loss of this magnitude is significant.
“We try to invest in programs and equipment each year so the students that are here now can benefit from their fundraising efforts,” said Noah.
One thing Noah was looking forward to using the missing funds for was Lego Leagues and to purchase Lego kits for the teams. They also believe they will have to forgo giving out mini-grants to teachers this spring. One such grant they bestowed this past fall was used to purchase a 9 Square in the Air game for physical education classes to use. The game has been a hit with teachers and staff.
“How low does someone have to be to do this to kids?” Asked Noah. “I can’t imagine what kind of place someone must have to be in to do this.”
The PTO will host their annual Family Fun Night Friday, April 26, which is another fundraising effort, at which they hope to recoup some of their losses this year.
The PTO appointed Kris Schommer as the PTO’s interim treasurer. Schommer had previously served as the PTO treasurer prior to O’Brien taking over. She is also the current school secretary. Noah said they expect to officially re-instate Schommer this May.
Although the PTO is a non-profit entity separate from the school, Anoka-Hennepin School District Superintendent Dennis Carlson offered his comments on the situation.
“We are saddened by the theft of hard-earned funds raised by Oxbow Creek School students and families because the primary result may be lost opportunities for students,” said Carlson. “We would like to acknowledge the tremendous amount of good work non-profit parent teacher organizations and parent booster clubs do within the school district. They raise hundreds of thousands of dollars that provide opportunities our students would not otherwise have. Problems with improper use of funds are rare.”
The district’s Parent Involvement Program provides resources to help these organizations develop sound financial management practices and will continue to emphasize the need to ensure that best practices are followed.
Noah said the PTO has reviewed its policies and has made some changes to help prevent future incidents such as this. One particular vulnerability they have changed was returning to a two-signature system for checks.
“We were down to only requiring one signature on checks,” said Noah. She also said they have been in discussions with the bank to come up with other protective measures.
Freeman echoed Noah’s sentiments stating the two-signature system as well as having a treasurer’s report presented on a regular basis by someone other than the person signing the checks are two good preventative practices.
“This is particularly sad because of the kids and because it was preventable,” said Freeman.
Hennepin County Media Coordinator Chuck Lafzewski said they are seeing a fair amount of embezzlement across the board, in for-profit, non-profit and activity groups. He said it serves as a reminder that precautions should be taken to prevent or catch these types of crimes early.
Contact Mindy Mateuszczyk at [email protected]