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Ex-archdiocesan employee pleads guilty in theft

A Baltimore County man embezzled more than $443,000 from the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the Basilica of the Assumption and used some of the money to buy comic books.

Victor George Puotinen, 49, of the 7000 block of Oxford Road in Stoneleigh pleaded guilty yesterday to two counts of felony theft in Baltimore Circuit Court.

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"The trial would show me guilty. There's no reason to belabor the point," Puotinen told Judge John M. Glynn.

Puotinen was indicted in August for embezzling $263,960.78 from the archdiocese between April 1999 and May 2000 and $179,800 from the Basilica between July 2001 and April 2002.

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An investigation by the archdiocese revealed that Puotinen spent some of the embezzled money on comic books.

"We understood he had an extensive collection," said archdiocese spokesman Sean Caine, who said he did not know how much of the money went to comics.

Joseph Sviatko, a spokesman at the Baltimore state's attorney's office, said Puotinen "spent a lot" on comics but was unable to provide a figure. Puotinen had worked as a development assistant at archdiocese headquarters and later moved to the Basilica, where he handled parish administrative services.

Between the two jobs, he had access to a number of special accounts and fund-raising accounts, said Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore state's attorney's office.

Assistant State's Attorney Elizabeth A. Ritter said Puotinen forged checks by affixing a cut-out copy of a Basilica priest's signature to them.

Using wire and bank transfers, Puotinen routed money from the archdiocese and the Basilica to an account of his mother-in-law, Dorothy Milligan, and then into his account. Milligan, who died this year, was not charged because she was unaware of the transfers, prosecutors said.

Puotinen also funneled money through an account of his daughter, who has not been charged, prosecutors said.

Puotinen's lawyer, Ike Dixon, said his client suffers from alcoholism and depression, that his marriage broke up amid the allegations of theft and that Puotinen's mental health will be evaluated before his sentencing, which is set for Sept. 7.

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Under the plea agreement, Puotinen will not face more than five years in prison.

"Alcohol definitely played a big part in this," Dixon said. "We are hopeful that the judge will take into account the mental difficulties he was going through at the time."

Dixon declined to comment on how Puotinen used the money.

Puotinen became the subject of an investigation in 2002 after an audit at the Basilica revealed wire transfers, and he was fired under suspicion of theft the same year.

"We've implemented additional safeguards to keep this from happening again," Caine said, mentioning daily reconciliation of accounts but declining to elaborate on more specific measures. "We're always looking at ways of improving our system of management and accounting."

The Basilica's Historic Trust is in the process of raising money for a $32 million renovation of the church, which is the first Roman Catholic cathedral in the United States. The trust has raised more than $20 million, and Caine said the thefts had not affected the fund-raising drive.

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Puotinen has had previous run-ins with the law, according to court records. In 1995, he was charged with passing a bad check and theft of less than $300. The charges were dropped.


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