Fraud and stolen vans in public service center

By the

April 5, 2001

An assistant with the Volunteer and Public Service Center was dismissed after a University investigation turned up evidence she may have embezzled up to $5,000, a VPS employee said.

The same week that the fraud was discovered, two VPS vans were stolen from the University parking lot. Several University related e-mails showed VPS Director Sharon Morgenthaler had presumed for at least a month that someone had unauthorized access to a van.

Sheline Brown, the Office Manager of the Volunteer and Public Service Center was asked to leave for fraudulent use of a VPS credit card.

VPS has documented evidence of at least $1,200 of personal expenditures on the credit card, though Morgenthaler said VPS is still waiting for a complete list of purchases made on the card.

According to receipts, improper use of the card began in December, though Morgenthaler said occurrences could have started earlier but until all reciepts are received the exact amount will not be known.

Brown had purchased personal items from stores including Kmart, Giant Food Supermarket and Ames housewares.

University policy says the VPS budget should be reviewed each month by at least two people, the Director of VPS and the Senior Business Manager of the Office of Student Affairs.

Juan Gonzalez, Vice President of Student Affairs, said the responsibility for reviewing department budget lies with each department head. He said when a department head finds a discrepancy, the Senior Business Manager in the Office of Student Affairs should be notified.

“The burden of responsibility is on the unit supervisor,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said at the level of the Office of Student Affairs, line item expenditures cannot be individually reviewed.

Lynne Hirschfeld, the Senior Business Manager of the Office of Student Affairs, said she is not responsible for reviewing individual expenditures, only for reviewing entire department budgets.

Kathleen Maas Weigert, the Director of the Center for Social Justice Research Teaching Center, and Morgenthaler’s supervisor, also said she reviews the VPS budget but does not review individual purchases.

Records indicate that unauthorized purchases may actually have begun before December. Morgenthaler, who is responsible for reviewing the budget each month, said she did not become aware of improper use of a VPS procurement card until March 9 after she realized VPS card expenditures were unusually high.

Morgenthaler said she did not review the reports in December and January.

According to Morgenthaler, Brown was responsible for bringing her the center status reports but told Morgenthaler the reports never arrived.

In January, Morgenthaler said she called Kurt Wick, the Budget Analyst in the Office of the Provost, who sends the center status reports to each University department.

Morgenthaler said Wick told her he had had difficulty sending out the reports, but that he would send her additional copies.

Morgenthaler said she believes Wick probably had sent the reports to her office. She found a box of the Cost and Reports near Brown’s desk after Brown’s termination.

After realizing there may have been unauthorized use of the VPS procurement cards, Morgenthaler reviewed the individual statements for each card. Three VPS staff members, including Brown, have procurement cards.

When the discrepancies were discovered, Brown was placed on administrative leave with pay until the allegations could be further explored. The following week Morgenthaler investigated the situation until she received sufficient evidence of embezzlement in the form of unauthorized receipts.

Brown received her notice of termination of employment March 16. Brown denies all allegations, according to Morgenthaler.

Brown could not be contacted for comment.

Though the investigation of this incident has not been completed, Morgenthaler said Brown’s personal charges will be covered by the VPS budget. She said the charges will not affect student programs.

Morgenthaler said VPS is currently working with Risk Services.

Dennis Rogers, the Claim and Loss Manager of Risk Services, said this case has not yet been referred to his department. Rogers said his office is responsible for investigation of all instances of fraud.

Procurement cards are issued by the University and enable authorized users to order directly from suppliers. Funds are then taken directly from the department budget or grant.

The procurement card is intended to be used for purchases for the use and benefit of Georgetown. No personal charges are allowed, even if intended to be reimbursed by the cardholder.

All cardholders must sign and accept the terms and conditions of the Georgetown University Procurement card agreement.

According to Gerry Bull, the Pro-Card administrator for University Purchasing and Contracts, in the year he has been employed at Georgetown, this is the first time he is aware of that a procurement card has been used for fraudulent activity.

Erin O’Neill (CAS ‘03), a VPS employee, said she didn’t believe Brown was properly informed on the policy of using a procurement card.

“The card is used not just to buy books. For example, you will use the card to buy candy for students,” O’Neill said.

Brown was hired effective September 1. She had worked in various Georgetown departments since 1988, including Joseph Mark Lauinger Library and the Office of Admissions for the Law School.

This situation comes at the same time as other organizational problems in the VPS Center.

Over spring break vacation, which began the evening of March 3 and ended March 11, two of the 19 VPS vans disappeared from the McDonough parking lot.

According to Lauren Williams (MSB ‘03), one of the VPS van coordinators, the coordinators discovered the vans were missing and notified Morgenthaler.

Morgenthaler said she learned the vans were missing March 11. Morgenthaler claims she told the coordinators to postpone calling the police to see if the vans could be located. According to Morgenthaler, neither stolen van had updated registration, so students could not have checked them out to use for service purposes.

“We still didn’t want to report them stolen in case a student had them,” Morgenthaler said.

According to Darryl Harrison, the Associate Director of Public Safety, the vans were reported missing to the Department of Public Safety on March 15. Harrison said the report indicated the vans could have been missing since March 2.

Harrison said University policy recommends a missing vehicle be reported to DPS as soon as possible.

DPS is currently working with the Metropolitan Police Department on an investigation of the stolen vans. Harrison said this is the first allegation of a stolen University vehicle this year.

In University-related e-mails from early February, Morgenthaler said she was aware one of the vans had a stolen key and was being used without authorization by students.

Student groups had notified VPS that vans were not found in the McDonough parking lot, where the vans reside.

According to a VPS student employee, students often illegally used the vans for personal use. The student said Brown often used the vans for personal errands too.

Morgenthaler said she suspected that students regularly misused VPS vans and knew about one occurrence last year.

In the past, students caught using the vans for personal use have been penalized with 100 hours of community service and the crime is reported to DPS, which puts the situation on a student’s permanent criminal record.

Gonzalez said many of the problems in VPS may be a result of insufficient funding and staff.

“The fact that someone, particularly in the [VPS] program, would act irresponsibly is heartbreaking,”Gonzalez said. “That program is elevated to a position of higher expectations.”

Gonzalez said Morgenthaler is very dedicated to the VPS office.

“We will work to shore up her skills regarding budget and personnel,” he said.

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