Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Ex-teacher guilty of embezzlement; gambled $1 million at Del. casinos

A former Worcester County teacher has been found guilty on charges of embezzlement of more than $433,000 from the county teacher’s union.

Denise Inez Owens admitted that while serving as the treasurer of the Worcester County Teacher’s Association she used its funds to pay for a gambling problem.

Prosecutors said their investigation showed that during a period of three years, Owens had visited casinos in Delaware on more than 600 occasions, and gambled more than $1 million.

“This has been a long process for me,” Owens said in Worcester County Circuit Court on Tuesday. “To say ‘I’m sorry’ isn’t enough. I was sorry from the moment I stole my first dime. I knew it was wrong. I never denied it, I never tried to hide it.”

Calling her actions “a breach of trust,” Judge Dale Cathell sentenced Owens to two years in the Maryland Department of Corrections and ordered her to repay $211,545 during a three-year probationary period once her jail time ends.

Owens, 58, has repaid about $195,000 of the money she took, according to her attorney, Robert L. Marvel Jr.

He noted for the judge his client’s “unblemished” criminal history, saying she hadn’t as much as a traffic ticket on her record.

She told the judge that the stealing had been hanging over her head for three years, and she felt relieved to have been caught.

“I can’t imagine I did this, but I did. I know why: gambling addiction,” Owens said, adding, “I am at a place where I have nothing.”

The Maryland State Education Association chose not to disclose the embezzlement to authorities when they learned about it in March 2009, according to Worcester County Assistant State’s Attorney Steven Rakow.

“I think the coverup of that theft, and the lies to the teachers, is far worse morally than Denise Owens having a severe gambling problem,” Rakow said. “There was some secret agreement; it was never written down.”

Rakow said after association officials met with Owens, the state union filed a claim with its insurance company that there had been an incident of employee theft.
The insurance company made good on the claim. Owens had her paycheck docked.

Denise Owens, who formerly went by her married name of Denise Tull, had been a teacher for 34 years, her attorney said. She had been with Worcester County schools since 1988, most recently as a special education instructor at Stephen Decatur Middle School, according to a school board spokeswoman.

The association issued a statement in August 2012 upon Owens’ indictment, saying the local dues was not part of mishandled funds, and that the funds in question were owed to the Maryland association and the National Education Association

“Following this incident, MSEA and WCTA immediately implemented procedural changes to create greater transparency and oversight and avoid any future similar occurrences. At no time was there a loss of programs or services to WCTA members due to this issue,” the statement read.

The incident was first reported by The Daily Times in February 2012 after a review of publicly available tax returns revealed that WCTA reported a $110,589 loss for fiscal year 2009.

An unsigned note in that tax paperwork attributed the loss to embezzlement by the former treasurer.

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