Living

The show will go on

The words came like a stab to the heart.

Teri Maude, the chairwoman of Beaufort Performing Arts, was in her kitchen on the Saturday before Easter. The executive director had come to deliver bad news firsthand: It had happened again.

Less than a year after an employee pleaded guilty to embezzling money from the nonprofit organization, the woman who was her replacement was charged with doing the same. In total, about $135,000 has gone missing since August 2006.

But two months after the most recent revelation, those involved with the organization say they are confident about its future. Their money may have been taken -- and their faith in humanity shaken -- but their spirit remains the same.

Despite the depleted coffers, the 2009-2010 schedule is going on as intended. No cutbacks have been made because of the missing funds, and the organization has changed its rules governing how employees handle money.

Nonetheless, questions linger. Will the organization get its money back? Will the incidents hurt fundraising efforts?

Maude said there's nothing to fear.

"We just want to assure the community that we are alive and well and are looking forward to the coming year," Maude said. "This hurt us, but it did not cripple us."

DAMAGE DONE, CHANGES MADE

Beaufort Performing Arts was established in 2003 through a task force by then-Mayor Bill Rauch to promote the arts locally. The organization operates out of the Performing Arts Center on the University of South Carolina Beaufort's north campus, where its shows and classes are held. The three-person staff is overseen by a nine-member board.

The upcoming season, which lasts from September until May, features performances ranging from the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico to the 3 Redneck Tenors.

The organization has grown to hold more productions each year. Its budget is more than $400,000 annually.

But for nearly half of its existence, it has been plagued with embezzlement issues.

The organization's former box officer manager and executive assistant, Stacy Whitmore, 26, was charged in June 2008 with one count of breach of trust with fraudulent intent after employees performing an internal audit noticed a number of suspicious checks that Whitmore had written from the organization's business accounts.

Investigators found Whitmore had been writing checks for her own use, stealing more than $98,000 from the organization for close to two years. Whitmore pleaded guilty to those charges and was sentenced to probation and ordered to pay back more than $78,000 of the $98,000 she embezzled.

Less than a month after Whitmore's arrest, the foundation hired Melanie Daniels, a 36-year-old St. Helena native, to take her place.

In November, a review of the organization's credit card statement reveled some questionable charges, such as payments to DirectTV, SCE&G and a wireless phone company.

They totaled more than $13,000, Maude said. Officials first suspected the organization's card number had been stolen, and after the card was canceled and a new one ordered, the suspicious charges stopped.

But on April 10, while going over bank statements, executive director Bonnie Hargrove discovered more than $22,000 missing.

The organization turned their findings over to Beaufort Police investigators who arrested Daniels on April 21, charging her with one count of breach of trust with fraudulent intent. She was released the next day from the Beaufort County Detention Center on $50,000 bond. She is scheduled to face trial in August.

This wasn't the first charge of embezzlement Daniels has faced. She was arrested July 18 -- three days after she was hired at Beaufort Performing Arts -- after investigators said she cashed five stolen checks worth more than $11,000 from Toll Brothers in Hardeeville where she worked, according to a Bluffton Police incident report.

Daniels pleaded guilty on April 8 to two counts of breach of trust with fraudulent intent and three counts of forgery, according to Beaufort County Court records. She was sentenced to five years probation and ordered to pay Toll Brothers restitution.

Maude said the board didn't know about her other arrest or guilty plea until after she no longer worked for Beaufort Performing Arts. The background check performed when they hired her came up with nothing significant, she said.

After the first embezzlement, the organization changed its accounting practices and limited the amount that could be spent without the board's approval. Those changes helped alert the board and Hargrove, who started on the job shortly after the first case of embezzlement, to the new problem.

More changes have taken place since. Now, the executive director has sole control of the credit card and checking accounts, and all invoices are checked by the board chairperson or treasurer before being written.

The next step comes in finding out how to recover the money. Insurance already has covered $25,000 in the first incident and $50,000 in the second, Maude said.

As part of her plea deal, Whitmore was ordered to pay $1,900 a month. But she has missed several payments and appeared in Beaufort County Court on Thursday for a probation hearing, according to the S.C. Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon. The judge restructured Whitmore's restitution payments Thursday, ordering her to pay $400 a month, according to Beaufort County court records.

If she misses a restitution payment, she faces 10 years in prison, according to court records.

DON'T FEAR THE FUTURE

In the meantime, the show must go on. The 2009-2010 schedule and its contracts were finalized before the second embezzlement was uncovered. More dance and children's theater classes were added, and a newly formed adult community theater's first show is planned for November.

The organization is embarking on a fundraising drive to put $80,000 into its coffers by the end of the year, Maude said. Like all arts organizations, Beaufort Performing Arts relies on charitable donations and sponsors for most of its budget.

Maude acknowledges that the embezzlements may hurt its credibility in the community. It's only natural that people question whether their money is safe, she said. Maude has gone to major donors to calm any trepidation.

Forgetting won't be easy.

"It really rocked my belief in people. I still wake up in the night and say, 'Oh, this is why she did this or that,'" Hargrove said. "I was a trusting person -- not anym

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