Two high school treasurers. Two theft allegations. Two very different outcomes.
In August 2015, police accused Cathleen Spring, the former treasurer of Bak Middle School of the Arts, of stealing $66,000 from her school. But after mulling the case for a year, prosecutors declined to press charges. She resigned and walked away a free woman.
Less than a year later, police accused Terri Miller, the former treasurer of Palm Beach Gardens High School, of stealing $7,200 from her school. This time prosecutors decided to charge, and Miller ended up in jail.
It’s a contrast that has educators across Palm Beach County scratching their heads since the outcome of the Bak Middle School case came to light this month.
Many teachers and parents were shocked by the news that State Attorney Dave Aronberg opted not to charge Spring. Not only had school district police concluded that she stole more than $66,000 from the school safe over three years, they said she admitted to signing the principal’s name on a check and charging personal expenses to a school credit card, according to police documents.
“Either the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office needs seeing-eye dogs trained in forensic accounting, or Spring is very well-connected,” William Fay, a former principal of Banyan Creek Elementary, wrote this month in a Palm Beach Post letter to the editor.
In dismissing the evidence against Spring as “circumstantial,” the State Attorney’s Office wrote in September that it would be difficult to prove the detective’s conclusion that Spring stole the $66,000 in school money that vanished from the school’s safe.
“In essence, the state would have to prove a negative, that no one else but Cathleen Spring could have stolen the money,” Assistant State Attorney Timothy Beckwith wrote in a memo explaining why the office wouldn’t prosecute the case.
What Beckwith didn’t mention is that – according to police – Spring had admitted to other acts: signing the principal’s name on a $7,433 check and using a school credit card to buy two pairs of boots and to cover part of the cost of her son’s airfare.
For reasons that aren’t clear, those alleged deeds, and the fact that there was direct evidence documenting them, were omitted from Beckwith’s memo.
That omission makes it impossible to know why prosecutors chose not to pursue criminal charges with regard to police findings regarding the check signature or the credit card purchases.
A spokesman for Aronberg declined to answer questions about the two cases or to address the differing outcomes.
“We never compare cases,” spokesman Mike Edmondson said.
An attorney for Spring did not respond to a request for comment.
But prosecutors’ decision to go ahead and charge Miller raises questions about the basis of each charging decision.
Like Spring, Miller admitted to police that she used a school credit card to make personal purchases, police reports show. Like Spring, police say Miller pulled money from school internal accounts, without authorization, to cover the personal expenses.
In both cases, the same school district police detective, Kevin McCoy, concluded that the treasurers’ use of school credit cards for personal expenses amounted to grand theft, a felony, according to police documents. McCoy did not respond to a request for comment.
Spring was accused of buying two pairs of UGG boots worth $320 on Amazon.com, then using money from the school’s after-school account to cover the expense. Detectives say she also used the school credit card to cover $90 in airline costs for her son to travel to New York, then used money from the school’s visual arts department to cover it.
Miller was accused by police of running up $7,200 in personal charges on the school’s Costco and Sam’s Club cards, then using money from the school’s JROTC program to cover the expenses.
Unlike Spring, Miller made some efforts to repay some of the money, records show.
Spring’s boots purchases came to light only after a detective, investigating the money that vanished from the school safe, noticed one of the pairs of boots in her office, according to a police report.
Police say Spring claimed, at first, that she had used the school district card unintentionally when purchasing the boots through her Amazon.com account.
Detectives obtained messages exchanged between Spring and Amazon that showed that Spring used the school credit card after her personal card was rejected, records show. Amazon then sent her two pairs of boots in the same delivery.
Confronted with the pair found in her office, police say she claimed that she was planning to return they since they had been purchased with the school credit card. She insisted it was the only pair she had received.
That’s when the detective told her then that records from Amazon showed she had received two pairs. Spring then admitted to having the second pair at home, police say.
A detective concluded that probable cause existed that Spring committed grand theft “based on the fact she made this purchase for her personal use, coupled with her conflicting statement concerning her not receiving two pair [sic] of boots.”
Investigators say Spring also admitted to signing the principal’s name on a check for $7,433.
Spring used the signature to cover costs after a teacher discovered a shortage in his fund, police concluded. Questioned by a detective, she claimed that the principal, Sally Rozanski, had given her permission to do so, a police report shows. Rozanski denied giving her permission.
Records show that police did not seek to charge Spring with passing a forged instrument, and evidently prosecutors did not consider this to be a prosecutable violation either.
Spring resigned in August 2015. The money was never recovered.
It was a different story for Miller, who was arrested and charged in May 2016 with organized scheme to defraud.
In March, she agreed to an pre-trial intervention agreement that calls for dropping the case against her if she repays $5,000 of the stolen money and maintains good behavior for at least 18 months.
The deal came after she had been arrested on a felony charge, spent more than 24 hours in jail, posted a $3,000 bond and vowed never to return to a position in the county’s public school system.