Ex-employee pleads guilty in $63,000 church scam

| July 16, 2009

Solon resident Ruth Lewis was a beloved member of the St. Martin’s Episcopal Church family in Bentleyville, and it’s sad what has happened, Junior Warden Robert Ware said Monday.

Mrs. Lewis, 61, who was a member and former employee of the church, pleaded guilty to two charges involving defrauding the church in the amount of $63,567.

The case was in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio Eastern Division with Judge John R. Adams presiding. A plea agreement was entered June 10. Mrs. Lewis’ attorney is Virginia A. Davidson, of Calfee, Halter & Griswold. U.S. Assistant Attorney Gregory C. Sasse represented the United States in the case.

Church parishioners were informed of the situation last month, Mr. Ware said, and, while there was shock among congregants, the vestry had some previous knowledge through an investigation before the charges were filed.

Mrs. Lewis, who worked with the children’s ministries, resigned in late 2007. In the past month, the church congregation has had time to process what happened, he said.

"We’re praying for her," Mr. Ware said, and "we’re in a period of renewal" and "not looking in the rearview mirror."

The church has been reeling from two fires that caused extensive damage to the church two years ago July 13.

The initial fire was ruled arson by the Ohio State Fire Marshal, who passed it on to the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms several months ago, according to the state fire marshal. The case still is under investigation, according to the ATF.

Insurance paid a majority of the $3.2 million restoration from fire damages.

No one has made any statements to the church about any suspects in the arson case, Mr. Ware said. It’s ironic that the news comes now, he said, because the church is focusing on the future. The main sanctuary was reopened in time for Easter, and the church plans to host an open house for the community in the fall.

Mrs. Lewis was formally charged with access device fraud and uttering forged securities of an organization, according to court documents. While the statutory maximum is 15 years in prison, $250,000 fine, up to three years of supervised release and a $100 special assessment for each of the charges, it’s unlikely Mrs. Lewis will face those penalties. The court has discretion and sentencing is scheduled for 10 a.m. Aug. 26.

"We’re not focused on her" in the sense of retribution, Mr. Ware said. "It’s our understanding we’ll be reimbursed."

From around May 2005 through May 2007, Mrs. Lewis used a Key Bank account to make deposits by other individuals to one of St. Martin’s bank accounts, according to court documents. She obtained bank-deposit receipts, which she presented to church financial officers indicating the deposits represented her payments for her use of the church’s credit card for personal purchases. By claiming the deposits were from her own account, she received credit for payments regarding her personal use of the church’s credit card, when, in fact, the money deposited was from other people, according to court documents. The total amount was $49,267.

Between June 2006 and July 2007, Mrs. Lewis forged the endorsements of the payees of five checks drawn on a church bank account at Huntington National Bank and deposited them into her checking account in an amount totaling $14,300, according to documents.

In the plea agreement, the government would agree to reduce Mrs. Lewis’ sentence, because it has no reason to believe that she has not accepted responsibility for her actions, as long as there are no other determining factors in the future. But that would be within the court’s discretion, Mr. Sasse said Tuesday.

The government acknowledges that Mrs. Lewis has serious health problems and that she likely would argue for a lower sentence, which there is substantial basis for, according to the plea agreement.

In return for Mrs. Lewis’ guilty pleas, the U.S. agrees it won’t bring additional charges against the defendant for other crimes within the Northern District of Ohio.

The theft of a computer and other technology equipment from St. Martin’s Church in February 2007 remains a mystery. The case is no longer in the hands of the Bentleyville Police Department, Chief Timothy Pitts said Tuesday, as it was forwarded to the state fire marshal.

The Rev. Howard Humphrey, of St. Martin’s Church, was out of town and not available for comment.




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