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Concord preschool possibly one of several recent embezzlement victims

Jennifer Hawkins

Jennifer Hawkins

The former treasurer of a Concord preschool has been accused of stealing more than $4,600 from the school and doctoring monthly records to conceal the theft in the latest in a string of local embezzlement cases.

Jennifer Hawkins, 41, of Chichester was arrested last month on a warrant and charged with stealing $4,663 from the East Concord Cooperative Preschool between December 2008 and July 2011, when she worked as a parent-volunteer. She used the money to pay off a credit card, according to criminal complaints.

Lt. Timothy O’Malley of the Concord police said Hawkins turned herself in Feb. 19 and was released on $10,000 personal recognizance bail. She is scheduled for arraignment April 7 on charges of theft and records tampering.

According to the complaints, Hawkins used the stolen cash to make 19 payments to her Visa card. She also altered eight monthly treasury reports between 2010 and 2011, the complaints state.

Michelle Clarner, the school’s director, said a bookkeeper discovered the theft last summer. She said the school, which employs two teachers and can enroll up to 18 students, is struggling to stay afloat in the aftermath.

“We’re a very small program,” Clarney said. “We don’t buy extra supplies unless we absolutely need them. We’re just trying to stay alive because it is an excellent program for the children.”

A phone number listed for Hawkins is no longer in service.

Hawkins’s embezzlement charges are among several to surface recently in the capital region. A former treasurer of the Merrimack Valley Youth Baseball and Softball League pleaded guilty last week to stealing more than $16,000 from the organization. A former president of Concord Northeast Baseball and Softball League admitted two weeks earlier that he took $4,300. A former Dunbarton selectman was indicted in December for stealing more than $15,000 from the town’s historical society, when he was its treasurer. And last week the Pembroke police announced they were investigating the theft of more than $1,000 from a local youth football and cheer program.

“It’s a sad commentary that we can’t trust the people who we once thought we could,” said Senior Assistant Attorney General James Boffetti, who heads the state’s Consumer Protection and Antitrust Bureau.

Boffetti could not say whether the thefts spoke to a larger trend, but he acknowledged that small volunteer-based organizations often lack the checks and balances to properly safeguard themselves. He suggested that officials consider requiring two signatures on group-issued checks instead of one, and that they more readily monitor bank transactions.

“No one should have free reign,” Boffetti said.

But Eric Crane, the president of Merrimack Valley Youth Baseball and Softball, said groups such as his depend on at least some degree of trust, and are therefore vulnerable regardless of the accountability in place.

“If they want it badly enough, they’ll find a way to take it,” he said.

Crane, who works as a Concord police officer, said the thefts in his league surfaced last year when he and a former treasurer noticed some bills were being paid late. The police later learned that then-treasurer Michelle Toupin had withdrawn $15,531 from the league account in 125 separate transactions in a six-month period. A prosecutor said last week that she cut herself checks and used the league debit card for personal use.

Crane said the league has since ratcheted up its internal security. He now has full access to the account and plans to check it regularly.

But such reform carries its own concerns, Crane said. The more people who have access to accounts, the more susceptible they become. So in the end, Crane said, there has to be some degree of faith.

“You can’t point your finger at everyone and say, ‘I don’t trust you,’ ” he said. “You have to put that trust out there.”

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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