The Auburn Teachers Association on Monday disclosed to its membership that its former president — the late Sally Jo Widmer — misappropriated at least $800,000 in union funds for personal expenses such as gambling and trips over a period of several years.
Cheryl Miskell, who became ATA president in July, told the membership of the findings of a forensic review of union finances that began in November — after Widmer's death — when the new leadership team discovered irregularities in the process of taking over fiscal responsibilities. The local union leaders brought in the state affiliate — New York State United Teachers — to assist in the review.
Miskell delivered the findings to the Auburn Police Department on Monday. Cayuga County District Attorney Jon Budelmann has also been notified of the situation. No charges have been filed.
Widmer was ATA president for more than three decades, only stepping down from that role last summer. She died Nov. 7 at the age of 63. Auburn High School was closed for a day so staff could attend memorial services.
Miskell said the review discovered $800,000 in dues was misappropriated between 2006 and the fall of 2012.
"It appears that money earmarked for the Association was instead used for meals, gasoline, trips, gambling, clothing, grocery shopping — and for cash advances," she wrote to the membership. "NYSUT is still in the process of disentangling the Association's finances. Because some old financial records are unavailable, we may never know the full extent of the misappropriations."
Miskell said the ATA is bonded so it should be able to recoup some of the lost funds through its insurance carrier. She said at this point, the evidence does not point to any person other than Widmer as having misused union dues.
Miskell said the union leadership is putting stronger financial controls in place as a result of the investigation.
"We feel a strong sense of resolve that nothing like this should ever happen again," she wrote.
"In hindsight, all of us should have been more vigilant and insisted on stronger and clearer checks and balances. In a very real way, we were also victimized by what, in the end, turned out to be a massive fraud."
On Tuesday, Auburn Enlarged City School District Superintendent Constance Evelyn issued a statement in reaction to the news.
"While union dues are paid by each of the individual union members from their own money, and not by District funds, we know that a loss of this proportion to the Association will be disheartening to a large and critical segment of our staff," she said.
The district offered its assistance to the union and authorities to help with the continued investigation.
"We trust that the Association and NYSUT will take the necessary steps to remedy this situation and put the funds they collect from their members on a sound financial footing going forward," Evelyn said.