Auburn Teachers Association embezzlement

Source: Samantha House The Citizen

During Sally Jo Widmer's last seven years at the helm of the Auburn Teachers Association — a period in which she's now accused of stealing  $800,000 in union dues — the local unit was consistently late in sending money to its parent organization.

Between August 2005 and August 2012, ATA consistently owed the New York State United Teachers tens of thousands of dollars months after its bills were originally due, according to reports filed with the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Labor-Management Standards.

A forensic audit conducted by NYSUT, the local association's parent union, showed that during roughly the same time span, Widmer secretly embezzled the ATA's money to fund gambling trips and out-of-town vacations, ATA leaders disclosed last week.

According to the OLMS data, the local union was 90 to 180 days past due with its NYSUT bills in 2005 and every year from 2007 to 2012. At its worst, ATA owed NYSUT $38,468 at least three months after its bill was originally due.

In 2010, ATA paid its bill even later than usual, owing NYSUT $12,500 more than 180 days after its bill was originally due, OLMS reported. The filings raise the question of whether NYSUT leadership could have spotted potential problems with the Auburn unit's finances.

But Carl Korn, a NYSUT spokesman, encouraged caution when reading the OLMS data.

"We are still in the process of our own work and we've made no determination at this time," he said.

Cheryl Miskell, current ATA president, said that although the local union was still reviewing past due data as part of its investigation, ATA has paid its bills on time since Widmer's death last November.

During the more than 30 years Widmer worked as an ATA officer, the physical education teacher served as the union's president, co-president and co-executive officer. And although many people served as treasurer/secretary during her long tenure, Widmer held total control of ATAs bills and books, ATA leaders said last week.

Miskell said the union's membership and officers placed complete trust in Widmer and never questioned her methods.

Soon after Widmer killed herself on Nov. 7, ATA's new leadership found reason to be suspicious.

Yates County Sheriff Ronald G. Spike said Widmer, 63, committed suicide using a combination of alcohol and prescription opiates.

"The motive is unknown," Spike said. "I suppose one can wonder if (the theft) was a part of the decision to take one's life."

Miskell, who became ATA president at the start of the 2012-2013 school year, said she and John Ferrara, the union's new treasurer/secretary, found brow-raising irregularities while transferring the association's financial documents out of Widmer's name.

Miskell and Ferrara immediately contacted NYSUT for a forensic audit. The grim results of the nearly six-month-long investigation angered and shocked the union, forcing ATA's membership to re-evaluate their opinion of Widmer.

After telling the local union about Widmer's alleged $800,000 theft, Miskell turned the forensic audit over to the Auburn Police Department.

Capt. David Delfavero, the investigation's lead officer, said last week that police were working to determine whether anyone else helped Widmer misappropriate ATA funds.

Korn said NYSUT is the state's head teachers union, with about 1,250 local unions under its umbrella.