News

Ex-principal gets 90 days in jail

BY MICHAELA MARX WHEATLEY AND JEFF VANDERFORD

South Whidbey Record

COUPEVILLE — The former principal of South Whidbey Primary School will go to jail for 90 days for stealing kindergarten funds.

Bernie Mahar pled guilty to one count of first-degree theft Friday. She was sentenced to 90 days in jail and was ordered to pay restitution to the school district, as well as $217 in court costs and $500 to the county’s victim compensation fund.

The sentencing was a tearful ending to a long ordeal after the former kindergarten principal was accused of stealing funds from the school district last January.

“She cried and said I am sorry,” said deputy prosecutor Eric Ohme. “But all went smoothly.”

Accompanied by attorney Fernanda Torres and husband Dan Vorhis, Mahar remained stoic until asked by Island County Superior Court Judge Alan Hancock if she had anything to say to the court.

“I just want to apologize; I’m just so sorry,” she said through tears. Torres softly patted her on the back in support.

Hancock said he believed her apology to be genuine.

“But you have violated a sacred trust,

Ms. Mahar, by stealing money from the school and the kids,” Hancock said.

“Your career in education provides for an unusual background. But you did do these crimes and must be held accountable for abusing that trust,” he said.

Hancock noted Mahar won’t be eligible to work in the education system for at least

10 years.

Mahar immediately paid back the school district Friday, Ohme said. She had paid

$450 earlier and paid the remaining funds on her court day. She reimbursed the school district for a total of $5,100.

Mahar will likely serve her sentence in Skagit County jail, Ohme said. Skagit County has a work-release program that allows offenders to serve their sentences and go to work. Mahar currently has a job in Freeland.

The judge agreed that she could enter the program, noting the sentence would be a “substantial hit to Ms. Mahar’s pocketbook” otherwise.

There is a waiting list for the program, however, and if Mahar doesn’t get into the program before March 10, she has to report to Island County jail on March 11. Island County does not have a work-release program.

The prosecutor’s office charged Mahar with one count of first-degree theft and four counts of second-degree theft for taking a total of $5,100 in school funds last summer.

Her sentencing comes a year after school officials first approached her about discrepancies with the school’s accounts.

Mahar was placed on administrative leave on Jan. 25, 2007 for what District Superintendent Fred McCarthy called an investigation on a “management issue.” She resigned from her position a few days later.

According to court records, a school district business secretary noticed a bank transmittal was incomplete. The secretary also discovered other discrepancies.

When she looked deeper into the issue, she found more things amiss and reported her findings to Dan Poolman, the school district’s business manager.

School officials later confronted Mahar. Mahar then said she didn’t want her staff to have to go through the records because a meeting with the auditor was planned, and that she would personally write a check to replace the funds.

Mahar also asked district officials to keep the problem a secret and to not report it to the state, according to records.

However, McCarthy contacted the Island County Sheriff’s Office on Jan. 25, according to court documents.

When confronted by a sheriff’s deputy, Mahar said she had lied to the secretary because she was “scared to death.”

Mahar allegedly told police that she took checks from one account and deposited them into another account, and then got personal cash to balance the account.

During the interview with the deputy, Mahar admitted to manipulating several deposits and said nobody else in the office had been involved.

The school district determined that discrepancies occurred in 2006 between January and November.

Sheriff deputies later found numerous checks signed by Mahar that were written from the South Whidbey Primary Fund to herself or to husband.

Ohme said Vorhis will not be charged in the case.

“I looked into it and there is no way to prove that he had anything to do with it,” Ohme said.

The checks included one written for $2,700 in August 2006 and one for $1,350 in September. There were also two checks for $300 each that were written in October and December, as well as a $450 check in September, written to Mahar.

Mahar turned herself in to authorities at the Island County Jail on April 5. She was arrested for theft in the first degree, four counts of theft in the second degree, and for money laundering. She was fingerprinted, photographed and released without bail on her own recognizance.

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