[Editor’s note: In the interest of full disclosure, Chamber Chairwoman Faith Ann Butcher is an employee of Halston Media, parent company of Mahopac News.]
MAHOPAC, N.Y.— Last month, former Greater Mahopac-Carmel Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Erin Meagher admitted in open court that she used a Chamber debit card, without permission, to purchase nearly $3,000 worth of merchandise for her personal use. Originally facing felony grand larceny charges, Meagher pleaded guilty last month to a misdemeanor charge as part of a deal with the district attorney’s office and was terminated from her Chamber job.
After claiming she was the victim of a smear campaign that was politically motivated, Meagher must now reimburse the Chamber its money, perform 100 hours of community service, and stay out of trouble for a year or the felony charges could be reinstated.
Some have criticized the Chamber for getting law enforcement involved in the matter, opining that the organization should have simply asked for the money back and dismissed Meagher quietly, sparing her the public humiliation.
Here is an exclusive look behind the scenes of the investigation, which explains how Chamber volunteers uncovered Meagher’s fraud and the reasons why they, along with the district attorney’s office, decided to pursue criminal charges.
A taxing time
In February, Chamber Chairwoman Faith Ann Butcher sat down to begin the arduous task of preparing the organization’s annual tax return. She was gathering information for the 990 form, which provides data about nonprofit organizations and is used by the government to prevent such groups from abusing their tax-exempt status.
“I was going through our financials and looking over our bank statements and saw a couple of companies that I had never noticed before,” Butcher said.
She googled the companies in question— Le Tote and Stitch Fix—and discovered the former was a clothing accessory rental business and the latter was a personal stylist company.
“When I found that out, I thought it was odd,” Butcher said. “I thought maybe [the Le Tote charge] was for costumes related to the Day at the Races [Chamber fundraiser] or the Business Expo 2016. I thought maybe Stitch Fix was an embroidery thing for patches.”
Butcher sent Meagher a text asking if she knew what Le Tote was and Meagher responded she was not familiar with the company.
“I thought, why would we be doing this; it doesn’t seem like something the Chamber would be purchasing,” Butcher said. “I reached out to the other members of the executive board and said I think we have a problem. The total of these two things was about $500.”
Butcher said she also noticed there were purchases from Amazon throughout the bank statements as well, but didn’t think much of it at the time because she knew the Chamber had done business with the online company in the past, mostly for the purchase of office supplies.
But it was at that point that Amy Sayegh, the Chamber’s vice-chair, noticed that the number of Amazon charges was well above the Chamber’s norm.
Members of the executive board took their concerns to their attorney, Joseph J. Tock. Tock asked them to go back and do some more internal investigating.
“Once they contacted me, I wanted written verification from Amazon and from Mastercard (the Chamber’s debit card),” Tock said.
Sayegh, a former bank auditor with a background in forensic auditing, began to dig.
“I used to take on projects and pull them apart by the string and figure things out,” she said. “I can follow a dollar.”
Sayegh called Stitch Fit and Le Tote and learned the accounts were in Meagher’s name. The Chamber was able to get a refund from one company, but without the requisite password, the other business wouldn’t provide any information. So, Butcher, Sayegh and John Iorio, the Chamber’s treasurer, turned their attention to the Amazon purchases.
“I asked our administrative assistant for copies of all the Amazon receipts,” Butcher said. “She told me she hadn’t ordered anything on Amazon and I would have to get [the receipts] from Erin. Erin said she would get them to me [later that week].”
Meanwhile, Sayegh began to dig deeper into the Amazon purchases.
“I went through them one by one,” she said. “I had the amounts, the debit card number, the shipping address and I had the name. I called them to ask about the account and what these purchases were for.”
But without the email address that went with the Amazon account, Amazon wouldn’t give Sayegh much information. It was then that Butcher had a revelation. Butcher, a journalist, had dealt with Meagher in the past. She had kept all the email addresses Meagher had used before in various capacities for jobs she held. Butcher passed those email addresses onto Sayegh and they worked. They were listed in the Amazon account. Sayegh could now get the info she was seeking. As it turned out, Meagher was using three different emails within the account.
“She was ordering from her own personal account, which is a big no-no in the first place,” Sayegh said. “She shouldn’t be doing that.”
But now Amazon, with the email addresses in tow, could tell Chamber officials exactly what was being purchased—and it wasn’t office supplies.
“I had this guy on the phone for several hours; he was in the Caribbean,” Sayegh said. “He could tell me what each [purchase] was. We didn’t have the invoices yet [that Meagher said she would provide], so I was kind of flying blind.”
Sayegh said she was told the first purchase was for a suit and skirt totaling around $500. There was another for two prom dresses at a total cost of $99.
“Then, while I am on the phone with this guy, suddenly Faith emails me the invoices [that Meagher had provided].”
But those invoices didn’t match up with the info the Amazon rep was providing.
“I’m like: Son of a gun! Was this guy in the Caribbean just telling me a story? Was this some kind of joke? Because her invoices didn’t match with what he was telling me,” Sayegh said. “Her invoices were saying things like office supplies, a computer cable, a fan for the bathroom. They didn’t jibe with what this guy was telling me and I thought I had been duped by Amazon.”
The next day, Sayegh emailed Amazon to call her back so she could talk to them directly and not just “some call bank somewhere in the Caribbean.”
“At this point, I have the invoices with order numbers on top,” she explained. “I asked them, ‘if I tell you the invoice number can you tell me what’s on it?’ I gave them the numbers and it matched everything the guy [from the Caribbean] was telling me from the night before.”
For Sayegh, this was a revelation.
“I am thinking, oh my God, she forged the invoices!” she said. “This was the ‘ah ha’ moment. The bathroom fan for example—I looked on Amazon and it was something like $28. [Meagher] had some astronomical amount and I thought, that doesn’t jibe. I sampled another transaction and the amounts didn’t match again. Some of the items [on Meagher’s invoices] weren’t even available on Amazon.”
Iorio noticed even more problems.
“There was a misspelling in the receipts,” he said. “I mean, her receipts were just not gelling with the receipts from Amazon. I also found one receipt where she had charged a night of drinking down at [a bar]. She used our card. She told us that she didn’t realize she used the wrong card, but this receipt clearly had the name of our old treasurer on it. That was more aggravating because it was clearly a deliberate thing.”
It was Iorio who discovered that Meagher’s illicit spending spree started in March 2016 and then stopped for several months over the summer before resuming in October. That was because Tompkins Mahopac Bank, with which the Chamber does business, had switched from Visa to Mastercard and a new debit card was issued, voiding the old number. Chamber officials point out that their CEO doesn’t normally have access to the organization’s debit cards. But bylaws do allow for purchases for less than $500 without approval from the board. Meagher, they said, asked for that new debit card number so she could purchase walkie talkies they would need for the Chamber’s upcoming street fair. Once she got the new number, they said, her personal shopping spree started up again.
Sayegh reached out to Amazon yet again, this time seeking an online chat because it could be turned into a transcript that, in turn, could be used for evidence.
“Then I could find the item number and go on the Amazon website and find a picture of it,” she explained. “And when we found a picture of it, we could find pictures of Erin [online] wearing the dresses. She wore one of the dresses she got to a Young Republicans meeting and posed with the governor of New Mexico. Then we realized that a lot of this stuff was hanging in her office. She bought designer handbags, a hat, a cell phone case.”
Chamber officials said they wouldn’t speculate how Meagher was able to create such authentic-looking receipts.
“Minus the spelling errors, they looked pretty good,” Sayegh said.
With their investigation now concluded, Butcher, Sayegh and Iorio took their evidence back to Tock.
“When they first contacted me and I said I wanted written verification that she had committed the fraud, within 48 hours they presented that evidence,” Tock said. “These were volunteers doing this who believe in the mission of the Chamber. They take their responsibilities very seriously.
“It was crystal clear [Meagher] had stolen from the Chamber,” he added. “It was not accidental or a commingling of funds. I presented the evidence to the DA’s office with what I thought was overwhelming evidence of guilt. This was an intentional theft and a clever fraud.”
An arresting matter
Tock and the Chamber officials said that, initially, they considered handling the matter internally and just dismissing Meagher if she returned the money. But once they discovered the bogus receipts, they knew it was a premeditated act to deceive them and should be turned over to law enforcement.
“One of the things we keep hearing is why did we prosecute?” Butcher said. “While we are the executive board [of the Chamber], we don’t own the company. It’s a member-owned company, and if we had hidden it from our members, then all hell would have broken loose and they would have wondered what else we were doing. We had to be as transparent as possible. We contemplated not pursuing it through law enforcement until we got those invoices. That was the smoking gun; those invoices showed intent.”
Sayegh said all the Chamber really wanted was its money back.
“She doesn’t need jail time; she is a young girl,” she said. “All we wanted was for her to admit what she did in court and move on. We didn’t want to punish her.”
The difficult part, Butcher and Sayegh said, was having to continue working with Meagher while the Sheriff’s Department completed its investigation.
“We were sworn to secrecy. We weren’t allowed to tell anyone [about the investigation],” Iorio said. “She said that we didn’t give her any indication [something was wrong]. But we were legally not allowed to. Law enforcement told us we must continue doing business as usual.”
That proved to be a difficult thing to do for Butcher and Sayegh.
“There were many meetings and events and Chamber things that we just had to keep doing business with her and it was horrible; it was sickening,” Butcher said. “Because once we had these red flags, we wanted to keep her away from anything financial that we had to do.”
Investigators confiscated all the Chamber’s computers in an effort to piece it all together.
“They figured out where [the bogus receipts] were created; where they were scanned from,” Butcher said. “It was really just amazing.”
Meagher ended up turning herself in when the Sheriff’s Department reached out to her. After hours of questioning and being confronted with the evidence, she was arrested and charged with one felony count of grand larceny.
“They could have gone for more charges, but the felony was the most important charge,” Butcher said. “They felt that should be the focus.”
Eventually, prosecutors and Meagher’s attorneys reached the plea deal, reducing the charge to a misdemeanor.
Butcher said the Chamber was fine with the plea deal, but wanted to stop Meagher from collecting unemployment benefits.
“We asked [prosecutors] that they put into the deal the part about not collecting unemployment,” she said. “I had written to the Department of Labor to protest [Meagher receiving benefits] and they were actually siding with her so I was supposed to go for a hearing. She denied doing it. So [putting it in the plea deal] was easier to get her to withdraw her claim.”
Sayegh said she was perplexed why some would defend Meagher’s behavior and criticize the Chamber for having her arrested.
“[Not arresting her] would have allowed her to go to the next place and do the same thing,” she said. “I don’t understand why people feel that way. But we are just happy she admitted it on the record and we were satisfied with that.”
Butcher said the Chamber was not trying to be vindictive by having Meagher arrested.
“But this is our members’ money; we are the stewards,” she said. “All of the people who have been saying, ‘how can you do that?’ are not members. The fact that we were able to nip it in the bud within a year was really amazing. I am confident if it hadn’t been caught this would still be still going on.”
Larry Glasser, the assistant district attorney who handled the case, said there are various reasons why a plea deal, such as the one in Meagher’s case, is struck.
“In any case, we will meet with the victims and discuss the options with them,” he said. “It is important we explain the process and the risks and make sure it’s a result that they are agreeable to. If someone is charged with a felony, we need a grand jury with witnesses coming in and testifying live. It is all part of the equation. We balance it all and talk to complainants because they often have to take off from work to testify. We look at the chances of prevailing. All that gets taken into account.
“In different cases, there are priorities and sometimes admission in open court or restitution is enough,” he added. “Every case is truly different.”
After confessing to the crime in open court, Meagher provided a statement to The Putnam Examiner that her attorney read during the hearing in which he said Meagher commingled accounts and funds, “a clear pitfall that lacked commonplace protections.” He said Meagher lacked an employment contract or employee manual when she took the job.
Tock said he was taken aback by such remarks.
“I was disturbed to see her comments after she was sentenced claiming it was accidental, which it was not,” he said. “She deflected blame because there was no employee handbook for that. I think common sense dictates that you don’t steal from your employer. You don’t need a handbook.”
Nonetheless, Chamber officials said they are revisiting their protocols and making some changes—including the $500 maximum on unapproved purchases.
“We are currently going through our bylaws line by line and changing many different things,” Butcher said. “There hasn’t been a holistic revision in many years. There has been a piece revised here and a piece there, but nothing big. So, now we are working with Mac Creative Plan Solutions who do a lot of human resource stuff. They are helping us to develop a new employee handbook and protocols and procedures—just making sure we have good systems in place.”
Chamber officials said it wasn’t a lack of handbook or lax protocols that made them vulnerable; it was the fact the organization was going through a tumultuous time with major personnel changes and, they say, Meagher took advantage of that.
“She knew there was a huge transition going on; she was walking into a bit of a turmoil at the time,” Sayegh said.
Iorio called what Meagher has said on online blogs and other newspapers about the Chamber and its members (there was no handbook; charges were politically motivated, etc.) “nonsense.”
“What she said in the media was terrible and was a character assassination of the hardest working people in our Chamber,” he said. “They spend countless hours there that they don’t get paid for. We were in a little disarray when she came in and we didn’t have any continuity. She took advantage of that.”
Meanwhile, in Brewster
Before coming to the Chamber in January 2016, Meagher held myriad political positions around the county, both appointed and elected, including serving as a trustee on the Brewster Village Board.
“She came with a pedigree and was a trustee in Brewster,” said Iorio, “so who would have thought she was capable of something like this?”
Since Meagher was first charged with the crime, Brewster officials have urged her to resign from the board, but she has steadfastly refused. If she had been convicted of a felony, she could have been legally removed from the post, but once the charge was reduced to a misdemeanor, her departure became voluntary.
Meagher was a no-show at the board’s June 7 meeting, where Brewster Mayor James Schoenig read a letter into the record asking for her to resign.
In the letter, Schoenig noted that Meagher, when first charged, said she was innocent and was “targeted for her age and political affiliations” but later pleaded guilty and admitted to the crime.
“You have to ask yourself why would one who claimed they were innocent enter [a plea] to a lesser charge that included restitution,” he wrote in the letter. “Because they are guilty.”
Schoenig wrote that elected officials must take an oath to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the state.
“On this, she failed,” his letter stated.
Meagher sent a letter to the board on June 7 explaining her absence from the meeting and why she was refusing to resign.
“To their call [to resign], I say no. I will not yield to partisan political pressure and base manipulation of the public,” she wrote. “I will continue to represent my constituents as is my sworn duty. I say shame to public use of the name and resources of the body for base partisan politics.”
Schoenig told Mahopac News he was confused by Meagher’s claim of partisan politics.
“She is a Republican and most of us [on the board] are Republicans,” he said. “We are too small to have party politics. You serve the people; you don’t serve a party. So, when she says it’s partisan politics, it doesn’t make sense.”
In her letter, Meagher wrote that she felt her presence at the meeting would be a distraction from village business.
“I do not have faith that my presence…will serve any purpose but further disruption and deviation from the duties of this body,” she wrote.
Schoenig said Meagher’s absence from the meeting was disconcerting to her constituents who had questions.
We don’t usually get many people at these meetings, but we had about 15-20 at this one and they were pretty upset that she wasn’t there,” he said. “They wanted answers. She needs to step down and save face for the village. We get phone calls all the time.”
Meagher is up for re-election in November and Schoenig said the board will continue to ask for her resignation until then.
“Every meeting we will ask for her to resign,” he said. “First the Pledge of Allegiance and then that. We are in the midst of the village revitalization project and to bring any bad press is unneeded, unwanted and unacceptable.”
In an interview with Mahopac News, Meagher defended her decision not to resign.
“The mayor and I have never gotten along,” she said. “I don’t consider him a Republican; I consider him a jerk. He’s never been loyal to the Republican Party.”
Though she did not attend the June 7 meeting, Meagher said she would attend future meetings, saying she doesn’t believe her presence would be a distraction. She said her legal problems with the Chamber have nothing to do with her role as a village trustee.
“I have no problem [going to the meetings] moving forward,” she said. “Hardly anyone goes to those meetings anyway.”
Meagher said she hasn’t made up her mind whether to seek re-election in November.
“But if they want to nominate [Planning Board Chair] George Gaspar, I would be fine with that,” she said. “That way, with him off the Planning Board, applications would move along faster.”