New Jersey Boss Pleads Guilty to Theft

Michael Opalenik, president of Policemen’s Benevolent Ass’n Local 175 in Long Beach Island, N.J., pled guilty July 14 to stealing at least $500 from the local for personal use between Jan. 1998 and Dec. 1999. He admitted withdrawing funds with a debit card from an account that included union dues and public donations. The full amount of the theft will be determined in a yet-to-be scheduled restitution hearing, at which time Opalenik will be ordered to reimburse Local 175 and pay for a $10,000 audit that was conducted. The Ocean County prosecutor’s office estimates that the theft was between $28,000 and $31,000.

The discrepancy in PBA funds was uncovered by newly appointed treasurer John Hill in Jan. 2000. Several withdrawals, checks and monthly statements were unaccounted. As president, Opalenik was the only one who had access to the bank card. The local estimated that $25,000 was missing and arranged for an internal audit to determine whether the funds were mishandled.

The local also asked ex-treasurer Jeff Ehlers to resign. Long Beach Township Police Capt. Leslie Houston said the township isn’t conducting any investigation into Ehlers.

The prosecutor’s office recommended that fund-raising groups be barred from having debit cards; that funds raised through solicitations be separated from operations  accounts; and that annual audits be mandated. Local 175 has already disposed of the debit card. “A debit card probably leads to too much temptation. It is too easy to  access cash,” said Local 175’s acting president Jerry Falkowski.

Several years ago, the local had separated funds received through donations from operational funds into two different bank accounts. And the local’s bylaws require that its Board of Trustees review the books twice a  year. An annual audit is also required. But, there were no audits of the 1998 and 1999  books nor were biannual reviews for those two years conducted. Opalenik, who also served as the local’s financial secretary, was supposed to arrange the audit. Falkowski said he doesn’t know if the trustees were even aware that they had to review the books. Falkowski said Opalenik, who was president for 17 years, was the “heart and soul” of the local and members never had reason to question anything he did. [Asbury Pk. Press 7/15, 7/19/00]