Sally Jo Widmer may have taken her darkest secrets to her grave. But the group that she led, the Auburn Teachers Association, wants some definite answers about how much money she took and how she spent it. So do the cops. Last month, the union’s parent organization, the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), an affiliate of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, announced further results of an audit it had completed a couple months earlier. Widmer, reported the NYSUT, misappropriated at least $808,000 in local teachers’ association funds over a half-dozen-year period. More than $350,000 of that money was lost at a nearby casino. Auburn police say they have no other suspects in the alleged thefts.
Whatever might be said of the last years of Sally Jo Widmer’s life, they weren’t happy. For more than three decades she served as president of the Auburn Teachers Association, which represents public school personnel in Auburn, N.Y., a city of nearly 30,000 west of Syracuse. But last November 7, Widmer, 63, turned up dead in her Canandaigua Lake home in Middlesex, N.Y. The Yates County Sheriff’s Office ruled the death a suicide. Though there were no published reports of a suicide note, she might have been motivated by a gnawing fear that someone was about to discover she’d been ripping her union off. Much of her thefts apparently went to cover losses at Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona, N.Y., which is owned by the Oneida Indian Nation. From 2006 to 2012, noted the audit, Widmer lost $351,365 at Turning Stone. Fully $342,920 of that loss was incurred at the tables, the rest at the slot machines. In addition to gambling, more than $450,000 of the embezzlement went for everyday items such as meals, gasoline, clothing, groceries and cash.
Law enforcement officials aren’t certain yet if the money she lost at the casino was union money. “I can’t say definitively it was union money,” said Auburn Police Detective Jeffery Mead. “She was writing a lot of checks for cash. I don’t know where they were cashed.” At the request of police, the Oneida Indian Nation has turned over casino records showing Widmer’s losses during 2006-12. There aren’t any other suspects in the missing money. “It all leads to Widmer,” Mead remarked. “People interviewed say the same things – they had no reason to suspect her. She did a great job as union president; she came from money; she had a good job and a good pension; she lived in a family house that had been given to her; she had no children.” Aside from the possibility that having no children contributed to her depression, one can say with greater certainty that gambling can’t fill a void in a person’s life. And stealing from a labor union, or any other organization, to cover any and all losses almost inevitably will be found out, if carried on for several years. As Union Corruption Update has documented many times, these are lessons all too many crooked union officials and employees don’t learn until they’re caught. As for Sally Jo Widmer, her home is listed for sale at $825,000.