Accountant pleads guilty in church theft

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A 53-year-old accountant who stole $50,000 from a Columbia church - and tried to take $60,000 more - pleaded guilty to theft and attempted theft yesterday and could be sentenced to up to a year in jail.

Charles Sylvester White, who had been hired by First Baptist Church of Guilford to prepare the books for a planned church expansion, apparently used the money to pay back an estate from which he had "improperly" taken money, according to a statement of the case read at a court hearing.

"Charles is obviously very sorry about what happened," his lawyer, Leonard McCants, said after the hearing. "It's just something that happened as a result of financial circumstances and he just made a terrible, terrible mistake."

In return for the guilty pleas, and if White pays back the $50,000 before his sentencing Nov. 25 in front of Howard Circuit Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr., prosecutors said they will limit their request for jail time to one year. If the money is not repaid before the sentencing date, the state will ask for a longer sentence, prosecutor Lynn Marshall said.

The church, which has been embroiled in a long battle with neighbors in its efforts to build a 25,200-square-foot addition at Oakland Mills and Guilford roads, discovered the theft in May last year while it was getting its books in order to prepare for an expansion, Marshall said.

Church officials had hired White, a former trustee for the congregation, to review the books and found that the accountant tried to deposit a $60,000 check into an account for the Northern Virginia Urban League, the prosecutor said. White, who served as chief financial officer for the Urban League, told investigators then that the two organizations had similar-looking checks, that he had picked up a church check in "some kind of way" and that he had been careless, Marshall said.

The check never cleared because it was missing a required second signature, the prosecutor said.

White, who lists his address in court files in the 7500 block of Swan Point Way in Columbia, told investigators that he had filed for bankruptcy protection and that he owed a $25,000 judgment.

A month later, church officials discovered that a second check had been cashed in February - three months before the discovery of the $60,000 check, Marshall said.

Church officials alleged that White had taken $50,000 from them in February, according to a statement of the case. The money was deposited into the Urban League's account a day after White was due to repay an estate for which he had served as personal representative, Marshall said.

Howard County Orphans' Court judges had ordered White to pay back by Feb. 19, 2002, about $40,000 in loans and other money taken from the estate, according to court files. White wrote four checks from the Urban League's account to the estate and himself after depositing the church check, Marshall said. The estate money was repaid within days, according to the statement and court records.

White was quickly terminated from his position at the church, and his wife, who worked as a First Baptist secretary, was fired, Marshall said. White has since lost his Urban League job, McCants said yesterday.

Church officials said they did not want to comment on what effect, if any, the theft has had on First Baptist's efforts to expand.

"When you have a situation like this, the first victim is the trust that has been lost, and the board - the church as a whole - has ... suffered as a result of this," said Columbia attorney Charles L. Fuller, who represents First Baptist. "When it's one of your own, it hurts more."

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