“A man’s idea in a game of cards is war: cruel, devastating and pitiless. A lady’s idea of it is a combination of larceny, embezzlement and burglary.”
– Finley Peter Dunne
The news – that the longtime Sanders County Clerk of Court would be arraigned last week on charges she embezzled money from her office – caught almost everyone off guard.
Then again, when it comes to embezzlement, it almost always does.
The typical embezzler last year, according to the Boston consulting firm Marquet International, was someone in their late 40s with no prior criminal record.
And more often than not, the thief was a woman.
In fact, embezzlement – the fraudulent appropriation of money or property entrusted to your care but belonging to someone else – is the only crime other than prostitution that women are more likely to commit than men.
Marquet’s annual study of embezzlement found that in 2011, two-thirds of all such cases it looked at were committed by women. Other studies and experts have pegged the number as high as 75 to 80 percent.
“It probably speaks more to opportunity than anything,” says Daniel Doyle, a co-chair of the University of Montana Department of Sociology who teaches criminology and criminal justice. “Who’s working as clerks and office managers? There are probably more females in those jobs than males, and so females have more opportunity to engage in embezzlement.”
It is also, he notes, a non-violent crime.
“You don’t have to be large, you don’t have to carry a weapon,” Doyle says. “For whatever reason, it is one of those crimes females engage in, at least in numbers more in line to their proportion of the population.”
At Missoulian.com, if you do an archive search for “embezzlement,” you’ll have to go 13 stories deep to find the first male named in connection with a Montana embezzlement case.
The first dozen stories out of Montana you come across – and that’s over just the last eight months – will all involve women who were charged with, pleaded guilty to, or were sentenced for the crime.
The most recent, in Sanders County, is noteworthy in part because of the relatively paltry sums involved. Clerk of Court Dianne Rummel, who has held the elected office for 14 years and recently filed for a fourth term, pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to 10 felony and six misdemeanor charges relating to allegations that she embezzled a total of $388 from her office, as little as $10 at a time.
Rummel has been suspended with pay by the Sanders County commissioners while her case is pending.
The other 11 archived articles involve a range from the $20,000 authorities allege that Sandra Poole Sales of Bozeman, wife of former Montana Speaker of the House Scott Sales, embezzled from her mother, to the $677,000 Kathleen Sammons of Charlo admitted stealing from the Whitefish Federal Credit Union in Polson where she worked.
Female perpetrators are the constant in the dozen stories; the victims or alleged victims are all over the map. The credit union, a small-town Little League program, a labor union, an attorney, a university, a tribal government, a hospice organization, a shipping company, a collection agency, other relatives.
“There are three basic motivations involved,” says Linda Grounds of Portland, Ore., a forensic psychologist who has evaluated 26 women convicted of embezzlement.
One is what she calls a “higher loyalty” – women who steal to better provide for themselves and their families.
“They may be taking money just to meet basic needs, or provide simple pleasures such as dinner out at McDonald’s or Pizza Hut,” Grounds says.
That might be the category Rummel would fall in if it turns out she is guilty. Rummel allegedly told Sanders County authorities she was having personal financial problems, and “borrowed” money from her office’s cash box to pay for milk and other personal items – always, she said, with the intention of paying it back.
Another motivation is often gambling.
“Gamblers do what they have to to fuel their addiction,” Grounds says. “It makes them feel better temporarily.”
The last, Grounds says, is compulsive shopping.
“People who buy stuff, and lots of it, expensive stuff,” she explains, in an effort to compensate for “unmet psychological and emotional needs.”
There may be fewer men who embezzle, but most experts agree those who do steal more money than women.
A lot more.
“Women may do 80 percent of the crimes, but they only get about 20 percent of the money,” says Dana Turner, a former cop-turned-security practitioner who runs Security Education Systems, a research, consulting and training firm located near San Antonio. “Men do 20 percent of the crimes and get 80 percent of the money.”
Turner bases his statements on more than 900 embezzlement cases he has investigated, or helped to investigate, during his 40-year career.
Men, he says, embezzle for different reasons than women.
“For women, stealing is about comfort,” Turner says. “Some may be stealing for what is otherwise a legitimate need, maybe to pay for medical care for a child that isn’t covered by insurance, or to care for an elderly relative. For men, it’s about power and sex. They steal for power, and they steal a lot.”
Women who embezzle are more likely to occupy mid-level management or accounting positions, while men who do it are often at or near the top of the hierarchy, according to Turner.
While they lose their jobs when caught – Turner says he knows of CEOs who not only embezzled millions of dollars, they received bonus buyouts as they were shown the door after being discovered – they’re less likely to be reported to authorities or charged with the crime.
“It’s a question of embarrassment,” Turner says. “(Companies) don’t want to be fodder for that kind of publicity.”
His advice to clients is the opposite. Always prosecute embezzlers, he says.
“And sue them at the same time,” he adds, “so that every time they pick up the phone it’s an attorney, or the cops, or a collection agency and they feel a lot of pressure to pay back the money they stole.”
Turner also advocates reporting the stolen money, and the person who stole it, to the Internal Revenue Service on a 1099 form used to report income other than wages, salaries and tips.
“They have a tax rate on it of something like 37 percent, and the IRS will go after it, and squeeze them for that 37 percent,” he says. “They’ll seize everything they own until that debt is paid. It’s a nice service.”
“As you might have guessed, I’m ruthless,” Turner goes on. “I like to stop embezzlement before it happens (see accompanying story), and I like to put the people who do it in jail. There are not too many crimes more deceitful, and it ruins companies every day.”
One of the earliest studies of embezzlement, done by Donald Cressey in 1953, coined the term “trust-violators” for people who embezzle from employers or relatives.
Shock is often the reaction from others when someone is first accused of embezzling money.
The accused are often longtime employees who have earned their employer’s trust. There is nothing in their background to suggest they would ever engage in criminal activity. The crime is usually committed when the employee has a financial problem they feel they must keep secret, whether it’s embarrassment that they can’t pay their bills, or embarrassment that they have a gambling, shopping, alcohol or drug addiction.
Of the 26 female embezzlers she evaluated, Grounds says 25 had no previous criminal record. The only one who did had been charged with driving under the influence.
“The thing that surprises me is that they were all of average, or a little higher-than-average, intelligence,” Grounds says, “but their problem-solving and ability to understand the consequences of their actions was remarkably bad. They really put their head in the sand in terms of the consequences.”
Most, Grounds says, started by promising themselves they’d only take money once, and that they would pay it back.
Instead, she says, the embezzler got “the instant gratification of being relieved from whatever pressure led her to take the money in the first place, whether it was to pay the rent or buy her kids shoes.”
It becomes, Turner believes, “one of the most habitual criminal acts there is, more so than serial killers or child molesters.”
That may be because some embezzlers get away with their crimes for years without being detected. Samson, the woman who embezzled from the credit union in Polson, stole on average more than $56,000 a year for 12 years before a surprise cash audit caught her.
She painted over numbers on daily cash counts with Wite-Out, substituted other numbers, and faxed the altered sheets to the accounting department so that the Wite-Out was undetectable.
Samson covered up her thefts by withdrawing huge sums from high-balance customers during audits, putting it in the credit union’s vault account, and then transferring it back to the customers’ accounts when the audit was over.
While she used some of the money to purchase a home in Dillon, other funds, Samson told authorities, went to donations to charities, to pay for high school banquets and trips, and to make loan payments for credit union customers.
Male embezzlers, Turner says, often use the money to hire prostitutes, and purchase expensive “toys” – fancy cars, big boats – that make them appear more successful to others than they actually are.
Men, Turner says, use the money they embezzle to make themselves look good.
Women who embezzle use they money to make themselves feel good.
Embezzlers, Turner says, “are some of the most interesting people you’ll ever meet. I love to get in an interrogation room with them. It’s better than a trip to Disneyland.”
They are liars, cheats and thieves, he says, whose crimes complicate their lives to degrees they probably never anticipated.
“They’re juggling everything all the time,” Turner says. “Their spouses, their kids, their bills, their credit cards, their jobs, their thefts, their cover-ups, even their religions. What brings them down is they can’t keep track of it all. It causes everything to fall down around them like a house of cards.”
Typically, most believe that will never happen, Turner says – and since many embezzle for years without being detected, the feeling is reinforced.
“They think they’re smarter than everybody, and they’ll never get caught,” Turner says.
But in his experience, Turner says, embezzlers are more clever than they are intelligent.
“They’re not self-aware,” Grounds, the Portland forensic psychologist, says. “They don’t think through their options, and they don’t put together what will almost certainly happen to them.”
The Marquet International study of 473 separate 2011 embezzlement cases involving sums of $100,000 or more found that the average loss per company was $750,000, and that the average embezzler swiped more than $15,000 a month from their employer for five years before being caught.
The most common schemes involved forgery or unauthorized issuance of company checks.
The study also ranked states at the highest risk for suffering losses to embezzlers.
Montana was fourth in the nation.
Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or by email at email@example.com.