PEI

Addictions drove woman to steal $26K from autism charity

Alcohol and gambling addictions drove the former executive director of a charity that helps people with autism to steal thousands from the organization. Lawyers recommend 90 days in jail on weekends, so Smith can work to pay the money back.

Tracy Ann Smith used credit card, cheques while working at Stars For Life Foundation

Tracy Ann Smith was terminated as executive director of Stars For Life Foundation in April 2018. She had begun to repay some of the money she took prior to discovery of the fraud. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

The former executive director of an Island autism charity says alcohol and gambling addictions drove her to steal thousands of dollars from the organization.

Tracy Ann Smith, 40, of Cornwall, P.E.I., pleaded guilty to defrauding Stars For Life Foundation of more than $26,000 according to an agreed statement of facts read into the record at Smith's sentencing hearing in Supreme Court in Charlottetown Friday. Stars For Life Foundation is an Island-based charity that provides support to people living with autism.

"They treated her like family," said Crown prosecutor Lisa Goulden, referring to the trust placed in Smith by the organization's staff and volunteers.

The fraud had a significant impact on the charity, according to the Goulden. Financial audits are still underway.

Goulden said the crime also has an impact on the "good will of the public and the clients they serve."

Impact on 'very vulnerable population'

"The Stars for Life supports a very vulnerable population," she said.  "The founder and directors trusted her implicitly. They were very vulnerable to her having that opportunity to access funds."

From January 2017 until the discovery of the fraud in April 2018 Smith wrote 22 cheques and used the charity's credit card to make cash advances and purchases which she kept for herself.

As executive director, Smith was responsible for bookkeeping and finances, court heard. The fraud was discovered one day when Smith called in sick, and another employee had to delve into payroll and financial records.

Stars For Life Foundation supports people living with autism. (CBC)

Court also heard Smith had taken steps to pay the money back, even before the crime was discovered.

Smith began making deductions from her own paycheques in November 2017 until her termination, court heard. Those eight deductions amounted to $3,500 she managed to repay before she was fired.

"She is mad at herself and doesn't know why she did what she did," said defence lawyer Thane MacEachern, quoting for a pre-sentence report about Smith. "She lost her friends and her job and her self-respect."

Lawyers recommend weekend sentence

Smith currently has three part time jobs, including work as a book keeper. Her new employers are aware of her fraud conviction, court heard.

The defence and prosecutor jointly recommended a jail sentence of 90 days to be served on weekends, so that Smith can continue to earn money to pay the charity back. Smith also intends to sell a rural property she owns. The lawyers jointly recommend Smith be ordered to pay $26,943.34 in restitution to Stars For Life Foundation.

Smith has written a letter of apology to the charity. Her lawyer read it aloud in court.

"I have broken your trust is so many ways and I am so sorry," MacEachern read from Smith's letter, "I let an addiction … build to an unexplainable point."

Smith has no prior criminal record.

​Justice Tracey Clements will sentence Smith on March 20.

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About the Author

Brian Higgins holds an honours Bachelor of Science degree in biology, as well as a Master of Arts degree in journalism. As a videojournalist, he currently reports for TV, radio and cbc.ca on Prince Edward Island with emphasis on courts and judicial issues.