The former treasurer of Montgomery County Council of PTAs (MCCPTA) has plead guilty to embezzling $39,015 from MCCPTA. Lisa Betts, 45, of Silver Spring intends to repay this misappropriated money.
An agreement drawn up by Betts’ defense attorney and county prosecutors sentences her to anything from probation to six months in jail. This guilty plea cannot be considered final until recognized by a judge. Her plea hearing is slated for November 17 under Judge David Boynton.
The $39,015 comprises nearly half of MCCPTA’s annual budget. Representing more than 190 of the 204 schools in Maryland’s largest school system, MCCPTA is a volunteer-run association of organizations that foster the relationship between 50,000 students, parents, and teachers. The funds are used for advocacy, informational meetings, and art festivals, among other programs.
Betts assumed her role as treasurer in July 2016, before resigning in late March 2017. Current MCCPTA president Lynne Harris reports that Betts claimed the inappropriate disbursements went towards repaying funds she took from two local PTAs. Betts previously worked as a PTA officer in Greencastle Elementary School in Silver Spring and Benjamin Banneker Middle School in Burtonsville.
Board members began noticing irregularities in the financial reports this February. Coincidently, Betts stopped writing checks and returned $10,000 during that same month. In an April 2017 letter, MCCPTA wrote, “Significant financial irregularities have occurred, including the apparent theft of a substantial sum, most likely by someone inside.”
Past MCCPTA president Paul Geller then reported the possible embezzlement to the police on April 10, which resulted in the creation of an independent three-member PTA audit team that reviewed activities from July 1 to March 31.
Comparing banking records, the audit team discovered that unauthorized disbursements began as early as last summer. Betts’ resignation aroused suspicion during this investigation, as the theft was perceived to be an inside job.
Montgomery County Circuit documents report that Betts “fraudulently and willfully” used the money, setting it aside to a “use and purpose contrary to the requirements of her trust responsibilities.”
As MCCPTA checks require two signatures, Betts has been accused of forging second signatures. Betts further sent revised copies of transactions to the MCCPTA to cover up the fraudulent transactions.
Although current PTA members said they could not recall similar incidents, Claudia Maria Jabbari, former treasurer of Cashell Elementary School’s PTA, pleaded guilty to stealing $27,000 from the PTA during the 2006-7 school year. Eerily reminiscent of the current situation, Jabbari forged the second signatures, a requirement for checks imbursed to PTA accounts. However, banks do not enforce the multiple signature requirement, resulting in an easily exploitable loophole for embezzlers.
To prevent future incidents, the PTA plans to tighten oversight by continuing its double signature policy as well as commence a monthly review of financial transactions by the president and treasurer. Three signatories currently have access to banking records.
Additionally, the MCCPTA has switched from paper bank statements to electronic ones, allowing leadership to review the account balance during meetings. “We’re going to be very transparent going forward, and we’re going to keep our members fully informed,” Harris said. She notes that these further measures are necessary to help uncover financial discrepancies that would otherwise go undetected.
“She (Betts) wrote checks to cash. She wrote checks to herself. She wrote checks to vendors that MCCPTA had no relationship with. Looking at the electronic statements would have revealed pretty directly that something was fishy,” Harris said.
The MCCPTA is currently working with insurers and the bank in hopes of recovering the lost money. MCCPTA and audit member Laura Stewart, however, is more concerned about the educational issues neglected due to the attention and effort spent on this incident.
Fortunately, Harris otherwise has stated her satisfaction with the incident’s progress. “I’m glad we’re at this point. We need to resolve this so we have it behind us,” Harris said. Moving forwards, Harris is certain that MCCPTA’s new commitments and guidelines will deter future fraud, allowing the topic of education to shine, once again.
Article by MoCo Student staff writer Alice Zhu of Richard Montgomery High School