A scandal in Cayuga County involving a teachers union, its long time president, the theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars and a suicide. YNN's Bill Carey says the death of union leader Sally Jo Widmer last November touched off a closer look at union books and now, an investigation of fraud.
AUBURN, N.Y. -- For 30 years, Sally Jo Widmer ran the Auburn Teachers Association. Her control, especially of union finances, was complete. Even after new officers had been elected to lead the group and she had moved from the district to a home in the Yates County community of Middlesex, on Canandaigua Lake.
The last contact between Sally Jo Widmer and the Auburn Teachers Association came last October when she spoke with some new union leaders. They were on their way to a meeting with state union officials to learn more about budgeting and how to track expenses. A few days after that contact, Sally Jo Widmer put the finishing touches on her will. Two days later, she was dead.
Authorities in Yates County say Widmer used a combination of alcohol and prescription drugs to end her own life. It was just a day before those new union leaders, President Cheryl Miskell and Secretary-Treasurer John Ferrara, were set to begin a full audit of the union's records. The findings, later taken to local police, were stunning.
“We learned that, according to the audit, $808,000 was misappropriated from the union,” said Auburn Police Department Captain David Delfavero.
The money was taken between 2006 and 2011. More may be missing, but there are few records from previous years. Widmer had used the money to pay personal bills, to travel, even to gamble.
Auburn Teachers Association President Cheryl Miskell said, “We're very disappointed. You know, we feel betrayed.”
The union's new leaders say they've taken quick steps to restore faith in the system.
“We have double signatures on all statements. We have double signatures on all credit card statements that come in. Both of us look at them and scan them and then sign off on them. We have given the check registry, a listing of all the checks for the previous month, at every meeting to the entire executive committee. That's about 30 people,” said John Ferrara, Auburn Teachers Association Secretary-Treasurer.
And there is even optimism that some of the money taken can be restored to union coffers.
Miskell said, “We are bonded. We have a fidelity bond through NYSUT and they've out together a claim and they will present that claim to the insurance companies. We do hope that we will recoup some of our money.”
It will then be up to insurance companies to piece together evidence of years of fraud and take legal action to recover the funds that Sally Jo Widmer stole.
Some union members are infuriated by one last step taken by Sally Jo Widmer. In the will she prepared just days before taking her own life, she included a bequest of $50,000 to be paid to the Auburn Teachers Association.