Beaufort News

Former Beaufort Performing Arts employee sentenced to four-year term for embezzlement

A former box office manager for the now-defunct Beaufort Performing Arts was sentenced to four years in prison Monday for embezzlement, according to the 14th Circuit Solicitor's Office.

Melanie Daniels, 38, of St. Helena Island pleaded guilty to one count of breach of trust for embezzling more than $20,000 from the arts organization between July 2008 and April 2009. Her trial was to begin today, according to a Solicitor's Office news release.

Days after being hired by Beaufort Performing Arts, Daniels was arrested for stealing from a previous employer, Toll Brothers. In April 2009, Daniels was convicted of three counts of breach of trust and three counts of forgery for embezzling $18,000 from the residential developer, and sentenced to probation.

Beaufort Performing Arts board members were unaware of Daniels' legal troubles when they hired her, said Teri Maude, former board chairwoman.

Maude said she was "delighted" by the outcome of the case.

"I think it's more than fair, given her previous history that she had stolen before," said Maude, who made a statement during the sentencing. "I am sorry that she chose to do this, and I'm sorry for the pain she caused her family, but it was a devastating series of events for us."

The nonprofit organization, which was forced to close in January 2010 because of money troubles, later filed for bankruptcy, Maude said. She said the closing was the result of a loss of private donations and corporate sponsorships, combined with diminished ticket sales, less grant funding and less accommodations tax money.

Beaufort Performing Arts was established in 2003 through a task force to promote the arts locally. It operated out of the Performing Arts Center at USCB's Beaufort campus.

For nearly half of its existence, it was plagued by embezzlement -- about $135,000 of the organization's money was unaccounted for in August 2006, and a second employee also was charged with breach of trust with fraudulent intent for writing checks in an unrelated case.

That employee pleaded guilty and was ordered to pay back most of what she embezzled. Beaufort Performing Arts recouped some of the missing money through its insurance.

Maude said the embezzlement issues did not cause the closing, but both incidents affected the organization's finances.

"She knew the financial situation the organization was in -- she was the bookkeeper," Maude said of Daniels. "She knew how precarious it was. Employees were so scrupulous because we couldn't afford not to be. And she knew it."

The arts organization's staff worked closely with Beaufort police investigator George Erdel to determine the extent of Daniels' forgeries and theft, the release said.

"The defendant's theft began at the time she was hired and continued until she was caught approximately eight months later," said assistant solicitor Francine Norz, who prosecuted the case. "She went to great efforts to hide her theft. Prison time was appropriate in this case due to the amount of money involved and the fact that the defendant had a previous conviction for a similar crime."