Embezzler stole from Tampa lawyer, Land O'Lakes kids

LAND O'LAKES

Mary Ann Howell handled everything at the law office. She juggled the schedule to ensure her boss could make her mother's doctor appointments without missing court. She ran the reception area. She took in all the money. Howell was also a mom who volunteered for the Land O'Lakes Police Athletic League. She sold sodas and hot dogs in the concession stand and spent hours on the sidelines of football games where her daughter was a cheerleader. But within a week of starting work at Jeanine Cohen's Tampa firm in fall 2004, Howell started stealing from her employer. Later on, other volunteers from the sports league discovered money disappearing from that time, too. Thousands vanished before Howell got caught almost two years later. When the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, which has advisory authority over the nonprofit Police Athletic League, did investigate, it did so quietly. Sheriff's officials drew no attention to the case, and it progressed without ever making news.

In all, according to league and court records, Howell took nearly $70,000 from the league, known as PAL, which gets its money from kids' registration fees and fundraising.

Add to that at least another $20,000 ripped off from Cohen.

"She had stolen all the money from PAL," said Brook Massey, the league's director at the time, "and now that the bills had come due, she was stealing from the law firm in order to cover PAL's bills."

Nothing in any of the investigative files says why Howell, now 34, took the money.

A surprising discovery

Cohen and her law partner, Wendy DePaul, hired Howell on a recommendation. The reference said Howell had previously worked for Raymond James, the financial services company.

They were the only three in the office, and at first Cohen didn't question anything.

"All I ever wanted to know was did we bring in enough money to cover payroll and cover the overhead," she said. "And as long as the answer was yes, I was happy."

Many of Cohen's clients were sex offenders who paid in cash.

But Cohen didn't realize any money was missing until the summer of 2006. By then the firm was in dire straits; the partners feared they might have to close down.

Howell was on vacation with her family when a client called about his account balance. The computer showed him owing more than he thought he did, so Cohen asked him to send canceled checks showing he'd paid.

He did.

The lawyers began digging and found many more losses. They fired Howell before she returned from vacation. She never came to pick up her things.

The scheme unravels

Howell was already treasurer of the PAL Gators when Massey became director in mid 2005. Early in 2006 the team began registering kids and raising money.

Land O'Lakes is part of the larger Pasco PAL, which encompasses 10 leagues throughout the county. Each has five football teams and cheerleading squads for kids ages 5 through 18. The kids pay $170 to play, which includes a monogrammed jersey.

But that spring, when Land O'Lakes officials ordered new jerseys for the Gators, there wasn't enough money to cover the bill, said Craig King, the former assistant director.

Howell, he said, suggested paying in installments. The board members agreed, but several of them had to personally guarantee the payments. "Basically we were putting our credit on the line saying the league would pay," King said.

That summer, when Massey learned that Howell had been depositing the law firm's money in the league account, he became immediately suspicious.

About 9:30 p.m. on July 26, 2006, he and King went to Howell's house in Land O'Lakes.

"She told us that she did it, and she'd been doing it for three years," Massey said.

She handed over the league's financial records, they said, promised to pay everything back and implored them to remember that she had a 9-year-old daughter.

Earlier trouble

Massey found cash withdrawals and check after check written from the league account to "Mary Howell," "The Howell's," "M. Howell." The amounts varied: $400, $600, $1,100, $1,500.

The checks are all signed by two board members, as required by league rules. But the signatures were forgeries, Massey said. In some cases, they had the wrong middle initial.

In delving through the bank records, Massey also found numerous checks written to PAL from Howell's previous employer, Raymond James.

They too add up to a stunning amount: $47,312.68.

"Raymond James never made a donation to this football league," Massey said.

The last amount, for $6,250, was repaid to the company with a league check, whose memo states "reimbursement for check cashed in error." Those signatures were also forged, Massey said. The check is dated Oct. 23, 2004, right before Howell went to work at the law firm.

Cohen had been told that Howell was fired from Raymond James for a clerical error. She came to suspect something more sinister, and was frustrated that Raymond James apparently didn't pursue the matter.

Massey agreed: "Had Raymond James prosecuted this … she'd have never been our treasurer."

Raymond James officials declined to comment for this story.

A quiet investigation

Massey turned over his findings to a sheriff's detective in August 2006. They agreed to keep in touch.

Both he and King say that Detective Zak Arey warned them about getting calls from reporters, and even suggested they might not want to answer any questions.

"They encouraged us not to," King said.

Later, Massey said, Arey told them his report would be written in a way that wouldn't attract media attention.

Arey did not arrest Howell. He turned over his investigation to the State Attorney's Office, where prosecutors filed charges themselves. On March 27, 2007, a warrant was issued for Howell's arrest on a charge of grand theft. Her arrest affidavit, a public record, describes no details of the crime.

Arey acknowledged that he advised King and Massey not to talk about the case — with anyone. He said that was to preserve the integrity of the investigation.

"Initially when I spoke to them, I didn't know at that time whether there were going to be any additional documents that could be destroyed (by Howell)," Arey said. "I didn't know if someone else was involved."

He also said it's not uncommon to refer such complex cases to prosecutors, rather than immediately making an arrest.

"She wasn't an immediate threat or harm to anyone," Arey said of Howell.

Sheriff's Office spokesman Doug Tobin emphasized that Sheriff Bob White, who is director of the Pasco PAL executive board, has no control over the day-to-day workings or finances of the Land O'Lakes league, which is a separate nonprofit corporation.

He said that when the embezzlement came to light, the executive board made suggestions for tighter financial oversight, such as conducting regular audits and having two people count cash instead of one.

"There was concern and they did offer suggestions," Tobin said.

A felon avoids jail

Howell pleaded guilty to the grand theft charge in Pasco this April and was sentenced to six months in jail followed by 10 years of probation. She was judged a felon and ordered to pay $31,801.04 in restitution to the league — the total of the fraudulent checks. League officials couldn't prove the rest of the missing money — cash withdrawals with no paper trail — were not legitimate.

Cohen pursued charges in Hillsborough County. Howell pleaded guilty to organized fraud, money laundering and fraudulent use of personal information. She was sentenced to 364 days of jail time, followed by two years of community control and 10 years of probation.

But she's not in jail. Hillsborough sheriff's officials wrote to the judge who sentenced her in Tampa that she qualified instead for house arrest. Requests for interviews sent to Howell's home were not returned.

Neither victim was satisfied with the outcome. Massey and King said their case never got the attention they thought it deserved.

"You would think the PAL (executive board) would want to nail her to the wall to send a message: You don't steal from us," King said.

Cohen was also awarded restitution — nearly $20,000 — but she has yet to see any money.

In fact, she's still paying for her former secretary's misdeeds.

Howell accepted a case and never told Cohen about it, even as the client's family paid for her representation. Eventually, Cohen was called to task before the Florida Bar and had to hire her own attorney to defend her.

The matter was resolved, she said, but she's still representing that client for free.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Molly Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6245.

Embezzler stole from Tampa lawyer, Land O'Lakes kids 10/04/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 13, 2008 1:35pm]

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