A former clerk at the Archdiocese of New York was unknowingly hired after a theft conviction and then spent more than seven years covertly writing hundreds of checks to a relative so she could steal more than $1 million in money used to oversee schools, prosecutors and the archdiocese said Monday.
By writing checks to her son yet logging them as payments for legitimate church expenses, Anita Collins acquired an extensive doll collection, $23,000 worth of clothes from Barney's and Brooks Brothers, $19,000 worth of items from an Irish gift shop and other luxuries while working a $35,000-to-$50,000-a-year job at the massive Roman Catholic archdiocese, prosecutors said as she was arraigned on grand larceny and other charges.
"She held herself out to be a religious woman, going to church every day, yet behind their backs she would lie and steal," Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Amy Justiniano said.
The white-haired Collins, 67, was being held on $750,000 bond. Defense lawyer Howard Simmons said Collins, who lives with a 30-year-old daughter who is contending with cancer, wasn't in a position to post the bail.
"She's accepting her fate" of being jailed, at least for now, said Simmons, who said he might seek lower bail later. "She seems like a sweet lady (and is) very scared."
But prosecutors said Collins steadily stole from the church's Education Department by writing more than 450 checks to one of her sons, each check for less than $2,500 _ the threshold for needing a higher-up's approval, Justiniano said. Collins recorded them as payments for such items as power bills or office supplies, archdiocese spokesman Joseph Zwilling said.
Collins deposited the money into an account she shared with one of her sons, prosecutors said.
Most of the archdiocese has had a system that would catch such discrepancies for some years; the Education Department, where Collins worked, adopted the system more recently, Zwilling said. Archdiocese staffers and outside auditors spotted the theft in December and alerted the district attorney's office, the archdiocese said.
The archdiocese works to keep its financial controls ahead of such schemes, but "sadly, there will always be individuals who seek to exploit and circumvent whatever system is established," Zwilling said.
The money was stolen from accounts used to run a central office for some of the area's Roman Catholic schools, Zwilling said. Between insurance and potential restitution, the archdiocese expects to recover the funds, he said.
Collins was fired within 24 hours after the fraud came to light, he said.
When church officials confronted Collins, she admitted stealing _ but only $10,000, Justiniano said. She said Collins made a full confession after Monday's arrest, which was first reported by The New York Times. Investigators found a roster of dolls, paintings, jewelry and high-end clothing in Collins' Bronx home, prosecutors said.
Before the investigation, the archdiocese, which serves 2.5 million Catholics in about 400 parishes in parts of the city and its northern suburbs, didn't know it had put a convicted thief in a job that involved issuing checks, Zwilling said.
Collins was convicted in 1999 of a felony charge of stealing more than $50,000 from a temporary staffing agency where she worked, and in 1986 of a misdemeanor count of stealing from another employer, Justiniano told a judge.
In those cases, Collins got probation. She was still on it when she started working at the archdiocese in 2003.
But Collins didn't disclose her criminal history when hired, shortly before the archdiocese began conducting background checks for all new employees and for existing employees who worked with minors, Zwilling said.
"It was just a happenstance of timing," he said, "that she was hired just almost immediately before that program was instituted."
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