When it comes to tracking down missing money, following one’s best instincts is normally good policy. It certainly was that in the case of Denise Owens. On February 19, Owens, a former public school teacher in coastal Worcester County, Md., and former treasurer of the Worcester County Teachers Association, was found guilty in a Maryland state court of embezzling more than $430,000 from the union. It was a sum nearly four times that originally reported. The defendant, who until recently had gone by her former married name, Denise Tull, had an affliction all too common to union officials who steal: problem gambling. Owens was arrested by state police last August following an investigation. The details reveal not just a corrupt official, but also a union leadership less than fully accountable to its members.
Union Corruption Update reported on this story last April. Local authorities had announced in January 2012 the launch of a probe into the disappearance of funds from the Worcester County Teachers Association (WCTA). The WCTA, an affiliate of the Maryland State Education Association (MSEA) and ultimately the National Education Association (NEA), in an IRS tax return dated March 13, 2011, documented $111,589 in “misappropriated funds.” The previous tax return had been filed in August 2008 and reflected finances for the 2005-06 school year. Clearly, whoever managed the books wasn’t up to the job. That would be Denise Tull, a special education teacher at a county middle school, who already had resigned as union treasurer back on March 31, 2009.
The case had flown under the public radar, and that apparently was the way the union preferred it. Rather than notify the authorities, the Worcester County Teachers Association simply passed along the information to its bonding company, National Union Fire Insurance Co., for an audit. Upon completion of the audit, WCTA President Helen Shoftstall announced: “All of our accounts have full restitution, and there are no claims pending against any of our association officers.” She added that the association had paid all back taxes. The problem, she emphasized, was not theft, but clerical error. Inconveniently, local newspapers in January 2012 began reporting on the case, a fact that aroused the curiosity of the Maryland State Police. Not long after, on February 27, 2012, police launched a probe. It looked pretty suspicious. Here was a union whose annual dues income didn’t even amount to $100,000, yet there were over $110,000 in missing funds. As it turned out the investigation turned up a lot more: $433,784, or almost four times the amount originally reported. The funds represented dues payments scheduled for forwarding to the Maryland State Education Association or the NEA.
Problem gambling, and financial losses from it, was the main explanation for the thievery. Police stated that over a three-year period, Tull/Owens, now 58, a resident of Berlin, Md., had visited casinos in neighboring Delaware on more than 600 occasions and placed more than $1 million in bets. Starting in April 2006, she wrote herself nearly 200 unauthorized union checks ranging in amounts from $150 to $6,000. She also wrote union checks to friends and co-workers. In March 2009, the Maryland State Education Association, recognizing that its funds were severely short, notified the Worcester County Teachers Association. An internal probe yielded the conclusion: Denise Tull/Owens had stolen the money. She agreed to resign as treasurer and make full restitution, but got to keep her teaching job.
Armed with subpoenas and court orders, state police were able to contact the WCTA’s insurance company. Included in the insurer’s records was a written confession of guilt from Tull, dated June 2009. Not long after, prosecutors moved forward. Tull would be indicted and arrested last August. Placed on indefinite leave from her teaching job, she announced this January that she would retire. She also chose, inexplicably, to go to trial. On February 19, she was found guilty. Standing in Worcester County Circuit Court, she admitted: “I was sorry from the moment I stole my first dime. I knew it was wrong. I never denied it. I never tried to hide it.” Judge Dale Cathell then sentenced her to two years in prison and three years of probation, and ordered her to repay $211,545. She already has paid about $195,000 in restitution.
Justice has been served. Yet there remains the troubling fact that the county and state NEA affiliates, despite learning about Tull/Owens’ embezzlement four years ago, chose to handle things internally rather than notify authorities or members. Avoidance of bad publicity appears to have been the prime consideration. The lead detective on the case, Kyle Clark of the Maryland State Police, termed the WCTA’s leaders “very uncooperative” during the probe. At sentencing, Worcester County Assistant State’s Attorney Steven Rakow denounced union leadership: “I think the cover-up of that theft, and the lies to the teachers, is far worse morally than Denise Owens having a severe gambling problem.” While it is debatable that covering up a crime is worse than committing it, he’s got a point: A union’s leaders are accountable to members and the general public, not to themselves. For some reason, the Worcester County Teachers Association never got that memo.