Law Review: A charity's loss, and its cry for legal help

Dominic Visco in his Doylestown home office. He uncovered what is believed to be a theft from a charity designed to help others.
Dominic Visco in his Doylestown home office. He uncovered what is believed to be a theft from a charity designed to help others. (ELISE WRANETZ / Staff)
Posted: August 27, 2012

In a world rife with cynical self-promotion and self-aggrandizement, the Philadelphia Society of St. Vincent de Paul is a Catholic charity whose sole mission is helping others.

The society provides financial assistance, food and encouragement to some of the region's poorest residents, putting biblical teaching into practice. In all, about 1,000 Philadelphia-area volunteers make home visits and provide other assistance, all to establish a personal connection with the people they help. It's simply not their style to write a check and walk away, feeling fabulous about how virtuous they are.

It came, then, as a shock in March when the society's own executive director, Carey Roberts, the granddaughter of former Philadelphia police commissioner Thomas J. Gibbons, was arrested on charges of embezzling funds from the charity.

The alleged theft was discovered by the society's former board chairman, Dominic Visco, a retired information-technology executive at Procter & Gamble.

Visco, of Doylestown, has an MBA from Temple and spent his career as a corporate manager. But he is a volunteer and he most certainly is no forensic expert. So he was hoping for help from the Philadelphia police or the District Attorney's Office. He says he didn't get very much. It took four or five visits to the police to get them interested, he says.

"They frankly blew me off," Visco said.

Capt. John Gallagher of the city's east detective division said Friday that the detective who handled the case was on vacation and thus unable to discuss the details of probe. But he said that, as a general rule, most city detectives have only limited expertise when it comes to handling financial crimes and that resources are stretched. But he said his office will take another look at the case.

"I can take every detective in this town and dedicate them to fraud and embezzlement and it wouldn't make a dent," he said.

Tasha Jamerson, director of communications for the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, said that the office had oversight but that the details of the investigation were handled by the police.

"Neither the police nor our office have forensic accounting ability," she said. "With the city budgets strapped as they are [and] many resources being used on violent crime plaguing our city, forensic accounting is not something we have the resources to do."

Visco said it was only when he handed police a thick binder filled with what he says is documentation that Roberts apparently wrote thousands of dollars in checks to herself, plus a big check to her mortgage company and a $21,000 check to cover her husband's tax liability, that "the light finally went on."

While the police eventually charged Roberts with theft, they apparently didn't do much of an investigation beyond a handful of conversations with Visco, which he initiated. No other board members were interviewed. The society's former accountant, Jeff Medaglio of Doylestown, who seems not to have noticed the missing funds, also was not contacted. Medaglio declined to comment.

There was one visit to the society's offices in Northeast Philadelphia, where it runs two thrift stores and a warehouse to collect donated clothes, selling the excess to a wholesaler in New York, the society says. Although the hard drive of Roberts' office computer contained personal records, including a tax return showing that she and her husband had a joint income of more than $300,000 in 2007, and correspondence suggesting they were behind on their mortgage payments and facing foreclosure, neither the Philadelphia police nor the district attorney's office moved to obtain the computer, according to Visco.

As far as the society can tell, the official investigation seems to have been based largely on work conducted by the society itself.

This has real-world consequences for the society. Visco, now an official with the regional organization, said he only went back far enough in the society's records to show that $100,000 was missing, the limit of the society's insurance coverage. He didn't have the time nor the expertise to do a full-bore forensic examination, even though he suspects there were thefts going back many more years.

Roberts started at the society in 1999 and took over as executive director several years later.

The binder he gave to the police, prepared by the society's lawyer, Morgen Cheshire, who was hired after Visco had finished his informal audit, showed a troubling pattern of apparent fund withdrawals and payments by Roberts for personal expenses.

But, perhaps befitting a Christian charity, it was not the work of a tough-guy professional prosecutor. It included an initialed statement from Roberts seemingly admitting to some of the allegations, but left many questions unanswered.

Roberts, the daughter of former Inquirer police reporter Thomas J. Gibbons Jr., a former policeman who once was shot while on duty, could not be reached for comment. Jimmy Binns, a Philadelphia-based white-collar defense lawyer representing Roberts, did not return a telephone call for comment.

Visco says the society's thrift stores, which provide employment to dozens of low-income city residents, are hanging on by a thread. The thrift-store operation owes more than $236,000 in unpaid real estate taxes to the city, has an overdue gas bill of more than $47,000, and owes tens of thousands in unpaid state, federal and city wage taxes, all liabilities that occurred on Roberts' watch, Visco said.

To find out how much money was taken, the society would need to hire a forensic accounting team. Such specialists typically charge $500 or more per hour.

Only then would it have any idea how much money it is owed. Big companies do this all the time, by the way. It's not uncommon for a major corporation to spend tens of millions on lawyers, accountants, information-systems specialists and others to get to the bottom of a complex fraud, often because the U.S. Justice Department, having heard from a whistleblower, is breathing down their necks.

They have enough money to make the problem go away.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul clearly is not in that league. Without help from the police or the district attorney, the organization likely will never know how much money was taken. While it says it is grateful that an arrest was made, it was hoping for a little bit more.


Contact Chris Mondics at 215-854-5957 or cmondics@phillynews.com.

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