MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – The former financial secretary of a Foley church pleaded guilty Wednesday to embezzling more than $200,000.
Sharon Collins worked for First Baptist Church from May 2007 until July 2019. During most of that time, she admitted in a written plea agreement, she fraudulently used church credit cards issued in her name and the names of other employees to steal $209,745. For years, she admitted, she used church credit cards to make personal expenses, from satellite TV to plane trips to a college degree.
In court on Wednesday, US District Judge Terry Moorer went over each charge Collins was pleading guilty to – 12 counts of wire fraud – and asked if she understood the charges.
“I do, your honor,” she said.
Defense attorney David York declined to comment after the hearing.
In exchange for pleading guilty to the wire fraud charges, prosecutors agreed to seek dismissal of a pair of aggravated identity theft charges that would have mandated at least two years in prison on top of whatever time she got on the other charges.
US District Judge Terry Moorrer set sentencing for November. Under advisory sentencing guidelines, she faces a prison term of at least three years and 10 months, and as long as four years and nine months.
“I imagine, for you, this is embarrassing,” he told the defendant, later adding, “Even if you find this embarrassing, it’s not the worst thing in the world someone has ever done, and you can live this down.”
Collins admitted that she would purchase goods and services for her personal use and the benefit of other people. According to her written plea agreement, the church did not approve the transactions. The vendors included Best Buy, DirecTV, AT&T, Troy University and the Baldwin County Probate Office. Other vendors included the Society of Human Resource Management, Hilton, Amazon, Royal Caribbean, a pair of bookstores and Delta Airlines. Several restaurants, gas stations and grocery stores were also on the list.
The plea agreement indicates that Collins used church credit cards to pay for travel to New Orleans, Las Vegas and Bainbridge, Georgia.
Collins initially worked as the secretary of the First Baptist Church of Foley and became financial secretary in 2008. In that role, according to the plea document, she wrote checks and managed accounting system.
The church uncovered the embezzlement when the new pastor and the Finance Stewardship Committee determined that a savings account worth about $100,000 had gone missing. Collins was the only employee responsible for opening bank and credit card statements, and she reported on financial statements she prepared for the church, according to the court document.
The church fired Collins in July 2019 after she refused to allow access to her computer and church accounting records, according to the plea agreement. The Finance Stewardship Committee and the pastor discovered about $212,000 in purchases Collins made that appeared to be personal.
The church then turned the matter over to the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office and, ultimately, the FBI.
Senior Pastor Drew Whittington, who took the job after the church uncovered the wrongdoing, told FOX10 News that the church community wants to put the incident behind it.
“We are grieved about what took place, and we are grateful for the work of law enforcement officials,” he said in a prepared statement. “We have taken the appropriate steps to uphold the ethical stewardship of God’s household. This has been an unfortunate chapter in our history, but we are thankful to put it behind us and focus on being a healthy church that uses our resources to further the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Court records characterize the church’s financial situation after the embezzlement as dire. The plea document states that the church had to hire a computer service company to gain access to the defendant’s work computer since she would not disclose her password. First Baptist Church of Foley was “financially upside down” and had to cut the church budget by 10 percent, according to the plea document.
Donations from the congregation kept the church afloat, the plea agreement states.
“Even after the church resolved the deficit, it operated on a week-by-week basis for an extended period of time,” the by document states.
The plea document indicates that Collins concealed her embezzlement by failing to log the expenses or logging them incorrectly. Confronted by law enforcement investigators, she admitted that she made several false statements. She falsely told investigators that the church approved her use of a credit card to pay for her bachelor’s degree in psychology and criminal justice at Troy University.
Collins also insisted that she was the victim of intimidation by church leaders and that a former pastor had approved personal expenses on the credit card, including a family trip to Las Vegas.
“As Collins then and there well knew, these statements false and misleading at the time Collins made them to FBI and BCSO investigators, and Collins did so in order to confuse and undermine the investigators’ efforts to determine the truth about the alleged credit card misuse,” the plea document states.
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