In Million-dollar Theft Case, Church Worker with a Secret Past

By Sharon Otterman and Kate Taylor
New York Times
January 30, 2012

Anita Collins, 67, charged with stealing from the Archdiocese of New York, was arraigned in Manhattan Criminal Court on Monday.

For eight years, the woman worked in accounts payable for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, gaining the trust of her superiors.

Colleagues praised her quiet dedication and hard work, and noted that she prayed often; her volunteer work at an event at St. Patrick’s Cathedral won mention in the church’s newspaper, Catholic New York. No one, then, questioned the hundreds of checks she wrote at the archdiocese to cover small expenses, like office supplies and utility bills.

On Monday, the woman, Anita Collins, 67, was charged with embezzling more than $1 million over seven years from the archdiocese.

Prosecutors in Manhattan said she did not live lavishly. But at her modest home in the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx, a particular interest of Ms. Collins’s became apparent: expensive dolls.

Detectives emerged from her three-bedroom apartment on Monday carrying boxes filled with personal effects: 17 or 18 were labeled dolls, many from the Madame Alexander catalog; about three more were labeled bears. And when a postal service carrier walked by, she noted the volume of mail and packages that the family received.

“They get packages like no tomorrow,” she said.

Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said Ms. Collins was confronted about the missing money in December after an annual audit raised red flags. She was fired, and the archdiocese referred the matter to the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr.

When Ms. Collins was hired by the archdiocese in June 2003, it did not perform criminal background checks on prospective employees, as it does now, Mr. Zwilling said. So church officials were unaware until recently that she had been convicted of grand larceny in one case and had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in another.

Mr. Zwilling said the scheme diverted money “designated for the purpose of helping to provide Catholic education.” The archdiocese has been closing churches and schools for lack of money, and asking for more than $15 million in an annual charity appeal.

“We are continually reviewing how money is handled, our financial controls,” Mr. Zwilling said, “because we want to be good stewards of the money entrusted to us.”

Prosecutors said Ms. Collins had issued 468 checks from the archdiocese to “KB Collins,” the initials of one of her sons. After each check was printed, she would change internal records to show that the check had been issued to a legitimate vendor, prosecutors said.

“At first, we thought it was only a handful of checks, but we quickly realized that it was much bigger,” Mr. Zwilling said.

She kept the amounts to less than $2,500 each to avoid the approval of a supervisor required for larger checks, a prosecutor, Amy Justiniano, said during Ms. Collins’s arraignment.

“She held herself out to be a religious woman, going to church every day,” Ms. Justiniano said.

But all the while, the prosecutor said, she was “lying” and “stealing” and writing checks to herself in all but one month during her years at the archdiocese.

Ms. Justiniano said Ms. Collins also used the money on $18,000 in furniture from Bloomingdale’s, $37,000 in clothes from Barneys and Brooks Brothers, and $19,000 in goods from an Irish gift shop. Ms. Justiniano said that Ms. Collins had confessed.

Ms. Collins appeared in Manhattan Criminal Court wearing a green cable-knit sweater over a white turtleneck, her white hair pulled back in a short ponytail. She said nothing during the arraignment.

Ms. Collins was charged with first-degree grand larceny and falsifying business records. She could face a maximum of 25 years in prison on the grand larceny count. Mr. Vance’s office intends to seek a grand jury indictment this week. Judge Michelle A. Armstrong set bail at $750,000 in a secured bond or $350,000 in cash.

Ms. Collins’s court-appointed lawyer, Howard Simmons, said she had no money left and seemed to have “accepted her fate.” She has two grown sons in Florida and a daughter who lives with her and is being treated for cancer, he said, but none of her relatives came to court.

Ms. Collins and her daughter have for 15 years lived in a $1,400-a-month apartment in a multifamily building in the Bronx, blocks from the intersection of the Bruckner and Throgs Neck Expressways, one of the building’s owners, Domenica Viscogliosi, said.

“It makes me upset, because they were nice people,” said Ms. Viscogliosi, whose own daughter lives in a unit below Ms. Collins. “She was quiet, a nice lady.”

Ms. Collins sometimes attended Mass at a nearby church, Saint Benedict’s. The priest there, the Rev. Stephen Norton, said he did not know Ms. Collins well but would address the concerns of his parishioners.

“These things are always difficult,” he said. “But we’re a church of redemption.”

Two years ago, Ms. Collins helped organize a ceremony at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for 600 people preparing to enter the Catholic Church.

“It’s a wonderful day for the Church of New York, and it’s great to see this new blood entering the Church,” Ms. Collins was quoted saying in Catholic New York.

“Seeing people coming into the faith makes me feel good because my faith has always been a steadfast part of my life, and to me it’s very heartwarming to see this. I think it’s marvelous and I just love it.”

According to court records, Ms. Collins was arrested in June 1999, and charged with stealing at least $46,000 over 16 months from AccuStaff, a Manhattan temporary employment agency where she worked as a payroll manager.

In that case, she was accused of issuing duplicate checks to some employees, and then cashing them with check-cashing cards she had issued to herself under various names.

She pleaded guilty to one count of grand larceny in the third degree and received five years’ probation. Her sentence also required her to pay $10,000 in restitution to AccuStaff and complete 100 hours of community service, records from the district attorney’s office show.

Ms. Justiniano, the prosecutor, said Ms. Collins was still on probation when she began working for the archdiocese.

In January 1986, she was arrested in the Bronx on multiple counts of criminal forgery and grand larceny. In that case, she pleaded guilty to a Class A misdemeanor and received three years’ probation, according to court papers.

The current accusation against Ms. Collins has also set off an additional review of financial procedures and oversight at the archdiocese, Mr. Zwilling said, though he added that at this point, no disciplinary actions were being considered against any of Ms. Collins’s superiors.








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