Woman accused of embezzlement placed on medical watch

The Darien woman accused of embezzling more than $186,000 from a local veterans' assistance organization was placed on medical watch following her arraignment in Stamford Superior Court Monday afternoon.

A judge also doubled Cynthia Tanner's bond to $500,000.

Tanner, 52, a bookkeeper for the nonprofit organization, is facing a felony charge after police said she wrote more than 135 unauthorized checks in 2013. Police said Tanner began embezzling from the National Veteran Services Fund five years ago and believe the amount could reach $830,000 once the investigation is complete.

Tanner, of 73 Stanton Road, was arrested Monday morning on a charge of first-degree larceny, a class B felony, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and up to $15,000 in fines.

NVSF is a nonprofit organization that accepts donations to assist veterans and their families across the country. Tanner's responsibilities included payroll and the disbursement of funds to the charity's clients, according to police.

Her attorney, Gary Mastronardi, said the single mother of two has no prior arrests. She did not enter a plea during her arraignment.

Mastronardi requested medical watch because he said Tanner suffers from various medical conditions including sleep apnea, intracranial hypertension and extreme vertigo.

In May, Darien police received a complaint from the NVSF. Phil Kraft, the organization's executive director and treasurer, said McEnerney Brady and Co., a New Jersey-based accounting firm, found irregularities in the agency's financial statements, according to police.

Police said they quickly determined that Tanner, who has worked for the organization since 2008, had used the company's funds for personal use.

According to the affidavit, Tanner fabricated a financial ledger that indicates the checks were written to veterans or NVSF clients. However, police said Tanner made the checks out to herself and family members.

Tanner also made seven electronic payments for her car loans totaling $3,379.47, according to court documents. Police said Tanner used the agency credit cards for personal expenses, such as airfare, vacations and Internet purchases.

Police found that all of the suspect ledger memos were actual NVSF clients who had received assistance from the NVSF during the last seven years, according to the affidavit. However, the actual checks indicate that she made them out to herself or family members.

In 2013, Tanner wrote 16 checks to her 23-year-old daughter totaling $42,525, according to court documents. She also wrote 17 checks to her 25-year-old son totaling $19,925, according to court documents.

Tanner told police that she took advances from the charity but would pay them back by deducting it from her monthly paycheck, court records show.

"Tanner admitted that sometimes she would forget (to deduct the money), but claimed she was surprised by the totals," according to the affidavit. "Tanner also claimed her children were under the impression that she was deducting the funds given to them from her paycheck."

Tanner told police that she forgets things because of a head injury in 2011 and brain surgery. However, when police told her they knew checks were written prior to her head injury, she became quiet, according to the affidavit.

Veterans speak out

Kraft said he was "hurt" when he learned of Tanner's actions.

"I'm devastated and I'm betrayed. She was trusted," he said at the Darien Post 6933 Veterans of Foreign Wars Monday afternoon.

State Sen. Carlo Leone (D-Stamford), chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee and an Air Force veteran, said his first thoughts after learning of the arrest were of "shock and extreme dismay."

Two years ago, Connecticut passed a bill to monitor legitimate and fraudulent organizations.

"This organization is a legit organization," Leone said Monday afternoon. "It just seems like they could have had better and tighter control so that this thing couldn't have happened."

Leone said he plans to follow story to learn what happened and to find out "what controls were not in place so this doesn't happen again."

Anthony Montimurro, a member of Darien Post 6933 and a Vietnam War veteran, was also disappointed by the news.

"Any allegations, if true, are very disturbing to any veteran, to any American," he said.

Kraft, who said Tanner was terminated last week, said he couldn't comment on the investigation.

"Sorry, but there is not much that we can say beyond that this is an active criminal investigation," Kraft said in a statement. "This situation came to light during our internal auditing and some questionable entries came up. We immediately began a detailed review with our (Certified Public Accountants), contacted an attorney and then promptly set up a meeting with the Darien Police Department and gave them all of the information and records that they requested."

Charity not without problems

Charity Navigator, a nonprofit organization under the Internal Revenue Code, gave the NVSF a zero star rating for fiscal year 2011-12 because of the low percentage of funds raised versus funds distributed.

According to Charity Navigator, NVSF raised a net $9,111,243 in fiscal year 2011-12. Of the organization's expenses, 70.2 percent, or $6,719,039, was spend on fundraising efforts; 18.5 percent, or $1,767,705 was spent on programming; and 11.4 percent, or $1,091,170 was spent on administrative costs.

The NVSF was ranked as the eighth-worst charity in the country following a 2008 Tampa Bay Times investigation. The report revealed that from 2002 to 2011, the organization used for-profit soliticitors to help raise $70 million. The solicitors kept more than half -- $36.9 million -- for payment. According to the Tampa Bay Times, $33.3 million was used as cash that goes back to the charity to fund operations.

About $5.5 million was used for veterans' aid during that time period. The yearly average given to veterans is $500,000 according to the Tampa Bay Times.

According the investigation, Kraft defended the used of the outside solicitors.

"To blame a charity for the price charged by our fundraisers is like blaming a driver for the price of gas," Kraft told the Tampa Bay Times in 2011.

From 2002 to 2011, only 7.8 percent, or $5,496,235, of the $70 million raised was used for direct aid, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

"Donors should know that the charity is still in operation and that it is safe to donate," Kraft said in a statement on Monday.

Tanner is scheduled to appear in court June 30. Police expect to file additional charges against Tanner.

mspicer@bcnnew.com; 203-330-6583; @Meg_DarienNews