Friday, January 02, 2009

Two charged with stealing from Swoyersville Hose Co.

BY MICHAEL R. SISAKSTAFF WRITER
Published: Wednesday, December 31, 2008 4:06 AM EST

SWOYERSVILLE — It was only a matter of time before investigators marked all the boxes in their probe of missing money at the now-defunct Swoyersville Volunteer Hose Co. 1:n A state audit that showed more than $700,000 in unaccounted for funds.n A mother-daughter tandem that had exclusive control for more than six years over the fire company’s revenues from bingo, pull-tab games and fair admissions.n A search of the mother’s home that revealed evidence of her penchant for gambling.
n A financial analysis that determined the daughter and her husband were spending well beyond their means.Bingo.Prosecutors charged Catherine Drago, 77, of Forty Fort and her daughter, Carol Gamble, 46, of Exeter Township on Tuesday with theft by unlawful taking, theft by deception and criminal conspiracy, all third-degree felonies, and other charges.“It doesn’t matter who you are or what stage in life, if you break the law, you must be prosecuted,” District Attorney Jackie Musto Carroll said in a statement. “The law must be applied equally to everyone.”Gamble, who served as president of the fire company, and Drago, the treasurer, controlled the proceeds of the company’s bingo and pull-tab games and fair admission since at least 2001, prosecutors said.No one else from the company was allowed to tally, bundle, transport or otherwise handle the money, prosecutors said.According to an audit by the state Bureau of Charitable Organizations, $734,748 of the company’s income between January 2004 and November 2007 is unaccounted for.The Bureau of Charitable Organizations, a division of the state Department of State, initiated the investigation in December 2005, as part of a routine check to determine if the fire company was exempt from registering as a charity.Charities earning more than $25,000 per year are required to register with the bureau.According to the bureau and investigators, Drago provided an incomplete record of the fire company’s finances and later admitted she provided false information on a public disclosure form.The discrepancies led the bureau to widen its probe of the fire company. Eventually, an audit uncovered the company had generated $1,789,529 in revenue between Jan. 1, 2004, and Nov. 14, 2007.Members of the fire company, which dwindled in enrollment in recent years, told investigators Drago or Gamble would deposit all of the company’s cash and checks into the Hose Company Bingo Checking Account at Luzerne National Bank. Of the amount received, $1,054,781 made it to the bank.The rest went missing.Last November, investigators from the state police barracks at Wyoming and the Luzerne County district attorney’s office executed search warrants on Drago’s home on Seminary Place in Forty Fort, Gamble’s home on Lee Lane in Exeter Township and the hose company, at 1 Scott St., Swoyersville. At Drago’s home, investigators found casino courtesy cards from Bally’s, Trump, Claridge, the Tropicana, Hilton, Showboat, Sands and Caesars Atlantic City.Randy Farrence, an auditor with the Bureau of Charitable Organizations, conducted a financial analysis of Gamble and her husband, Darin.Farrence scrutinized the couple’s income and bank records and receipts, as well as bingo records and documents from the fire company and found they “appeared to have cash expenditures that did not correspond to their known sources of income,” investigators said in their affidavit of probable cause.Gamble was arraigned Tuesday before Magisterial District Judge David Barilla in Swoyersville and released on $50,000 unsecured bail.Drago did not appear before Barilla and was said to have been arraigned separately. She remained free on $100,000 unsecured bail.Gamble and her attorney, Joseph Cosgrove, declined to comment. An older man walking with them flashed his middle finger at photographers and reporters outside Barilla’s office, at the Swoyersville Borough Building.Preliminary hearings are scheduled for Jan. 7 in Central Court in Wilkes-Barre.If convicted, Drago and Gamble could face a maximum 38 years in prison; however, similar crimes prosecuted within the last two years in Luzerne County have largely resulted in probation or house arrest and an order to return the missing funds.Robert Pritchard, a former employee of the Luzerne County recorder of deeds, office pleaded guilty in March 2007 to stealing about $50,000 from an office cash register. He was sentenced to six months house arrest and ordered to pay back the funds.Another former employee, Carl Salitis, pleaded no contest in November 2007 to embezzling more than $100,000 from the office. He was sentenced to nine to 18 months house arrest, five years’ probation and ordered to pay back the funds.msisak@citizensvoice.com, 570-821-2061
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