When Leiza Hiltz Scerbo, executive director of Farmington’s Care and Share Food Closet, first started investigating discrepancies in the organization’s finances, she thought the problems were simply a matter of poor record keeping.

But as she sat in Franklin County Superior Court on Tuesday, Hiltz Scerbo looked on in shock as the food pantry’s longtime treasurer, Mary O’Donal, 74, pleaded guilty to theft after authorities said she had stolen $306,000 from the organization over more than three decades.

“Everybody trusted her,” Hiltz Scerbo said. “It was all I could do to keep from bursting out in tears. It’s a lot of theft over a lot of years and it hurt a lot of people.”

As part of a plea agreement, O’Donal admitted having stolen more than $10,000, a Class B crime, and did not contest the state’s contention that the theft topped $300,000, her attorney, Christopher S. Berryment, said in an email. Under the agreement, her proposed sentence would be three years in prison with all but 30 days suspended as well as three years of probation and an order to pay restitution to the pantry. She is due to be sentenced March 9 and has not served any prison time to date.

“The state and the defense reached a reasonable and fair resolution, given the various aggravating and mitigating circumstance in this case,” Berryment said. He did not elaborate on those circumstances.

Hiltz Scerbo took the executive director’s job in January 2015 and said she immediately set up teams of volunteers to cover each area of the organization’s work so one person’s illness or lack of availability would not interrupt the pantry’s mission of providing food five days a week to 500 needy families in the Farmington area. When she first approached O’Donal, Hiltz Scerbo said, it was in a similar spirit: to help share the burden O’Donal had shouldered for decades as the treasurer and sole financial arbiter for Care and Share.

But O’Donal was resistant.

“What she presented to us was that she was hurt that we would question her ability,” Hiltz Scerbo said. “She decided to step down because she didn’t want to change her way of doing things. It was at that point that we realized something was not right.”

Hiltz Scerbo and a team of volunteers analyzed Care and Share’s finances, matching checks cashed to invoices. They found unmatched checks for $1,000 or $2,000 for nearly every month dating back to 2001. However, the pantry’s checking account was in O’Donal’s name and only she could access it. Before she stepped down, O’Donal closed the account.

So after three months of scouring records, Hiltz Scerbo turned the documents over to Farmington police, who she said worked with the pantry’s bank to track checks back to the 1970s. They allege that for almost every month dating back more than three decades, O’Donal had been writing checks to herself and cashing them, stealing more than $300,000 in total.

To date, O’Donal has repaid $15,000 to the pantry. As part of her plea agreement, she also has signed over ownership of her home to Care and Share, though she and her husband will be able to continue living there. In 2016, O’Donal’s home was assessed at $48,250.

Hiltz Scerbo worries about the case’s effect on the pantry, which relies heavily on donations and volunteer labor; though she said with the new management systems in place, donors can feel confident that their contributions are being tracked and funneled to families in need.

She hopes O’Donal’s betrayal doesn’t sour locals or the organization’s “heartbroken” volunteers on their fellow Mainers.

“We don’t want trust destroyed in the world, because we feel that that’s a really important thing that most Mainers are really proud of,” she said. “But we want people to understand that good management does work and having those checks and balances in place does keep people accountable.”

Kate McCormick can be contacted at 861-9218 or at:

[email protected]

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