Ex-office manager for Big Brothers Big Sisters is sentenced to 4 years

Judge cracks down, says actions hurt children

jhewlett@herald-leader.comOctober 14, 2011 

Big Brothers Big Sisters filed a lawsuit Monday November 2, 2009 in Fayette County Circuit court that accuses Bendrea Wilson of Lexington, who was hired in May 2008, of forging two board members' signatures on at least 140 checks. Photo Credit: Fayette County Detention Center

Bendrea Wilson, the former office manager for Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Bluegrass, was sentenced to four years in prison Thursday in federal court in Lexington.

Wilson, 33, pleaded guilty in May to a count of bank fraud for cashing more than $435,000 in checks on the organization's account.

The sentence that U.S. District Judge Jennifer Coffman imposed exceeds the 27 to 33 months recommended in federal sentencing guidelines.

Coffman told Wilson that she didn't think federal sentencing guidelines were sufficient in Wilson's case because of the serious nature of the crime. The judge said she wanted Wilson specifically and the public in general to be deterred from such crimes.

Coffman told Wilson that she had stolen from underprivileged children who, but for her actions, would have had mentors.

"You have made the difference between success and failure for some of these children," Coffman said.

Wilson apologized to Big Brothers Big Sisters.

"I do ask for their forgiveness for my actions," a tearful Wilson said. "There is no excuse for it."

Coffman said she could see Wilson's remorse. But the judge also said that "not one penny of restitution" had been paid by Wilson. (Wilson turned over her house to Big Brothers Big Sisters, but she owed so much on the home that the organization did not receive any money from the sale, according to the organization.)

In May, Wilson admitted she issued 142 fraudulent checks to other people in 2008 and 2009. She would telephone the bookkeeper at an accounting firm used by Big Brothers Big Sisters and authorize checks payable to third parties, according to court records. Wilson picked up the checks from the accounting firm and forged the signatures of Big Brothers Big Sisters board members who were authorized to sign checks. She gave the checks to third parties, who cashed them, according to records. The amount taken represented about a third of Big Brothers Big Sisters annual budget.

"Our agency has been hurt very seriously by the actions of one person," Big Brothers Big Sisters chief executive officer Dale Suttles told the judge.

In an interview earlier in the day, Suttles said he didn't think the judge could give Wilson "enough time that will undo the harm that she has given this organization."

"As a staff and board, we have worked so hard over the past two years to overcome the embezzlement, but Mrs. Wilson has crippled this organization to the point that its very future remains uncertain," Suttles said in a letter to Coffman on Tuesday. He said Big Brothers Big Sisters had 32 staff members to cover 14 counties before the embezzlement, and now there are 18 employees, and the number might have to be cut soon.

He said Big Brothers Big Sisters probably would face a $170,000 shortfall this year.

Suttles said after the hearing that 500 to 600 fewer children are being served now by Big Brothers Big Sisters. He said that in 2008 the organization served about 1,300 children. He said the number of children served in 2011 was expected to be 650 to 750.

"We've made any and all changes necessary to ensure that this will not happen again," Suttles said. He said Big Brothers Big Sisters had undergone two audits since the fraud, and checks and balances have been put in place to prevent a recurrence of that type of crime.

In addition to the four-year prison sentence, Coffman said Wilson would be on supervised release for five years after she leaves prison. The judge placed many other requirements on Wilson, including restitution.

The judge said Wilson would be required to make restitution of $432,878.59 "jointly and severally" with others. (According to Suttles, only a small amount of the stolen money has been replaced.)

Marcus Searcy, 31, of Danville, who also has pleaded guilty in the embezzlement scheme, was to have been sentenced Thursday, but his sentencing was postponed.

Coffman ordered that Wilson be taken into custody immediately. Wilson and a deputy U.S. marshal struggled to remove diamond earrings from Wilson's ears before she was escorted from the courtroom.

Reach Jennifer Hewlett at (859) 231-3308 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3308.

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