For most of the five years Lisa Duda worked at St. Paul's Community Center helping clients stay financially stable, she was dipping into the organization's funds to pay off her personal bills, an assistant county prosecutor said yesterday. Over four years, that totaled $217,011.35.
Tearful and shaken, Duda, 39, of Temperance, pleaded no contest in Lucas County Common Pleas Court yesterday to one count of aggravated theft. As part of her plea, she agreed to pay back the money that she systematically stole from her former employer.
She faces up to five years in prison at sentencing April 21 by Judge Linda Jennings.
"She admitted stealing the funds from the charity, specifically from 34 client funds over four years," Assistant Prosecutor Kathryn Sandretto said. "She did this by paying off client bills and then used the additional money to pay for her own bills."
According to the organization, Duda worked for St. Paul's for five years as one of seven people involved in the representative payee program. The program was created to help clients by depositing their money- typically Social Security checks - into an account and using it to ensure that all their bills are paid, that they have spending money, and that they have reserve money for emergencies.
Duda was responsible for recording and managing the mon-ey for about 150 of the program's approximately 600 clients.
Yesterday, Anthony Thiros, president of the St. Paul's board of directors, said that in reaction to the thefts, the organization's first priority was to ensure that all clients' bills and financial needs were paid. The group then began working on replacing the money.
He said with insurance payments and money from reserves, the board of directors was able to replenish about two-thirds of the stolen funds. He said $70,000 to $75,000 still remains to be replaced.
"Not one person's immediate needs [were affected] because of this. We paid everyone's bills," Mr. Thiros said. He noted that the next step is to restore "faith, integrity, and reliability" in the organization.
Authorities said the thefts were discovered by an outside bank when it noted irregularities in checks being written. When confronted in early September, Duda admitted her involvement, Ms. Sandretto said. She was fired soon afterward.
Yesterday, Duda's attorney, Rick Sanders, said that it was "financial desperation" that prompted his client to take money. He added that, as is often the case, people who take money think they will pay it back but eventually take more.
He reiterated that the bills of all Duda's clients were paid and that she intends to pay restitution as she is able.
St. Paul's Community Center, at 230 North 13th St., is a $1.5 million agency that offers assistance to those "who are impoverished due to mental illness or substance abuse issues." Among the services offered is the Dwelling Place, a 12-apartment transitional housing complex, and a 30-bed homeless shelter. St. Paul's also serves 100,000 meals annually.
Mr. Thiros said he intends to write a letter to Judge Jennings about the impact of Duda's actions on the agency. In particular, he said the organization has worked to rebuild confidence in its name.
He said that since discovering the thefts, St. Paul's Community Center has made changes in its program.
For example, although it was routinely audited, St. Paul's has contracted with a new accounting firm to audit its programs. It has also hired a consultant to evaluate the agency.
"We're looking at everything from top to bottom," he said.
Mr. Thiros added that the organization continues to receive support from the community and that despite the setback, St. Paul's will continue to provide services for those in need.
"The need is still there and we'll march on," he said.
Contact Erica Blake at: