Saturday, July 24, 2010

University of Utah accountant embezzled for 8 years

Jara Jane Wimmer's downfall began in 2001 with a $200 check she wrote to her husband against the account of her new employer, the University of Utah's theater department. By the time the accountant was caught last year, Wimmer had stolen what amounted to a second paycheck for eight years, using the department as a personal ATM and sugar daddy for everything from Mexico vacations to T-shirts to jewelry, according to an internal audit the U. released Wednesday.The audit was completed a year ago, but the U. refused to release it until after Wimmer's sentencing Monday on theft and forgery charges, citing a protection order sought by Wimmer's lawyer. Overruling the U.'s request for serious jail time, 3rd District Judge William Barrett ordered Wimmer, 33, to serve 10 days in jail, perform 200 hours of community service and pay $123,000 in restitution. According to the audit, her thefts total $100,000 more than the restitution order, but that money was excluded from the criminal case because of a statute of limitations on theft.The revelations last year shocked the U.'s theater community, who saw Wimmer as charming, warm and helpful. Yet according to the audit, she had been plundering the department to the tune of $2,300 a month under the leadership of four different chairmen, all the while winning annual promotions and pay raises from a $10-an-hour associate to a $38,750-a-year lead accountant."Jara's name came up as the one everyone trusts and the one that the department can't do without," said theater professor Bob Nelson, who chaired the department from July 2005 until the end of 2008. "I kind of went along with that. I assumed everything she said was true and honest."Wimmer's eight-year tenure as an accountant coincided with the decline in theater arts on campus, described in a review prepared a few months before the embezzlement was uncovered in April 2009.The number of students, credit hours taught, tenure-track faculty and degrees awarded all dropped by a fourth from 2004 to 2008. The department hasn't awarded a graduate degree since 2004, due to the suspension of master's and doctoral programs, and it was running unsustainable deficits, reported the review, prepared by the U. Graduate Council which reviews all university units on seven-year cycles.Although this review was done two years ago, it was made public just recently and the department is now back on a healthy trajectory, according to Raymond Tymas-Jones, dean of the college of fine arts."Great strides have been made that have facilitated a significant turnaround," he said. Careful to not disparage Nelson, Jones said he replaced him as chairman with Gage Williams, a professor of set design whom he characterized as "a godsend.""Under the current chair, the faculty have galvanized and created a sense of energy to address these issues," Tymas-Jones said. Student numbers are up and he expects 26 incoming freshmen to join the actor training program this fall, with about half focusing on musical theater. Policies were put in place to ensure greater oversight on those who handle department funds, he added.Whether Wimmer's misconduct was a cause or a symptom of the department's decline is uncertain, but Nelson contends the theft cost the department 2 1/2 staff positions.When Williams was named chairman in January 2009, his immediate goal was to stanch the department's deficit and that meant exercising more control over finances. The books didn't seem right, so he brought in university auditors to look at Wimmer's use of her recently issued department credit card. They quickly found questionable charges, such as tickets to Cancun, totalling $42,000. She acknowledged in writing that these were fraudulent when auditors and Williams confronted her on April 13, 2009."By the end of that year she had become more aggressive," Williams said. "At that time we didn't know that it had all been stolen. It coincided with university budget cuts. It was a bad time to have someone making it look like we can't manage our ledgers. In reality, we can pay for ourselves."In her "confession," Wimmer claimed that she had only begun embezzling in the fall of 2008 because her husband had lost his job. She said he had no knowledge of the theft and she intended to pay back the money, she claimed."I never meant to hurt the department," she wrote.Further investigation revealed these credit card charges were just the tip of a quarter-million-dollar iceberg with her husband Jason Koerbler's name all over it, literally. Nearly from the beginning of her employment she had been writing him checks, averaging two a month at $700 a pop for a grand total of $113,000.The day after she was caught, Wimmer and Koerbler checked into a West Wendover, Nev., casino hotel where police say they found her with self-inflicted nonlife-threatening injuries and her husband dead. They declined to divulge how he died or how she was injured.Wimmer's lawyer, Tara Isaacson, could not be reached for comment on Thursday.The audit released this week catalogues hundreds of fraudulent credit card charges dating back to 2004, when Wimmer began misusing a professor's card. Most of her illegitimate shopping was done online through Amazon, where she bought such items as a radio-controlled mouse ($16.90), a swimsuit ($104.90), 32 pink purses ($135.70), baseball glove ($189.52) and diamond earrings ($479.99).Wimmer's duties, which included business manager for Salt Lake Shakespeare, the Classical Greek Theatre Festival and Youth Theatre, authorized her to write checks to cover department expenses. Koerbler provided no goods or services to the department, but even if he had, department policy would have barred Wimmer from writing checks to a family member."I'm really embarrassed. I'm not a youngster," said former theater chairman Bob Nelson, who came to the U. from Brigham Young University in 2005 after three years running its theater department. "I'm disappointed in myself that I didn't tear into the books and determine what our sources of income were and what are obligations were."In a letter to the court before Wimmer was sentenced, U. vice president for administrative service Arnold Combe asked the judge to impose a year in jail and to require full restitution."She employed a variety of means to defraud the University, including outright fabrication of order confirmations, delivery notices, and vendor invoices," Combe wrote. "Of all possible penalties, we believe incarceration for an extended period will be most effective in helping deter similar crimes."Barrett, however, opted for a shorter sentence on the rationale that if Wimmer remains employed, she will be better positioned to pay restitution. She now works for a major retailer, although she is barred from handling money.

No comments:

Post a Comment