The conviction of three former United Way of America executives on charges of stealing from its resources is the beginning of closure to a squalid drama. William Aramony, the 22-year president, was found guilty by a jury in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., on 25 counts of conspiracy, fraud, false tax returns and trading in stolen property. Two other former executives were convicted, too.
United Way of America, a trade association serving 2,000 autonomous United Way organizations across this country, began recovering in 1992 soon after this scandal broke. United Way of Central Maryland helped to jump-start reforms by withholding funds and demanding audits, accountability and a say in what was done.
Starting in 1992, United Way of America fired Mr. Aramony, brought in auditors, washed its laundry under the scrutiny of United Way volunteers, hired a new president in Elaine L. Chao at roughly half her predecessor's salary, reconstituted its board with representatives from local United Ways, instituted 18 internal audits reviewed semi-annually by volunteer professional auditors, reduced its staff from 302 to 180, wrote a strict code of ethics and plunged straight back into business.
That business is training staff and volunteers from local United Ways, providing uniform symbols and national advertising, establishing national standards and giving advice. For United Ways in small communities with little or no staff, the services of United Way of America are vital.
United Way of Central Maryland -- the vehicle by which 225,000 workers locally give to many health and human services through payroll deductions -- provided 1 percent of its donations to United Way of America for many years. In that indirect way, Central Marylanders were among the nationwide victims of the theft of at least $600,000 ending in 1991 for which Mr. Aramony, Steven J. Paulachak and Thomas J. Merlo were convicted. Under the reforms, those dues are reduced to three-fourths of 1 percent, or about $220,000.
It is money well spent. Central Marylanders who will be asked to give later this year can do so knowing that United Way of Central Maryland has never been tainted by scandal or abuse of trust. And they can be confident that United Way of America, which will receive 0.75 of 1 percent of their funds, now has among the strongest controls and code of ethics in the charities business. For that, thanks of a sort are owed to William Aramony and his co-conspirators, who will get their reward on June 14 when they are sentenced in U.S. District Court.