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Hospice employs ex-embezzler

The nonprofit group defends hiring a felon who has paid her debt to society. A watchdog group questions the decision.

Published June 18, 2003

LARGO - Susan A. Wynn stole $370,000 from a public agency in Georgia to treat herself to everything from a $2,500 diamond ring to season tickets for the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars.

A judge sentenced her to five years in prison in 1996 after Wynn, former finance director for a transit authority in Savannah, Ga., pleaded guilty to a federal embezzlement charge.

Despite her criminal history, Wynn managed to find steady work in Florida after her release from prison.

The Hospice of the Florida Suncoast hired her to work in its finance department.

Wynn, 53, who Hospice says disclosed her criminal history before she was hired in late 2001, works as administrative assistant to the nonprofit's vice president of finance. She is still on probation and declined to comment on Tuesday.

While a charity watchdog group questioned the judgment of a nonprofit group hiring a convicted embezzler, Hospice officials defended Wynn. They said she has no contact with cash, checks or financial accounts.

Hospice spokesman Mike Bell said Hospice emphasizes compassion and helping people overcome adversity. Wynn, Bell said, wanted to help because she once had a sister-in-law in a hospice.

"We felt she paid her debt to society," Bell said. "What we see here is a picture of someone who got their personal and professional life together and now serves the community. And I can't imagine anyone attacking that."

The head of a charity watchdog group said he can't imagine why a nonprofit charity that relies on public trust would hire someone with Wynn's history.

"You would think they wouldn't want her anywhere near Hospice," said Daniel Borochoff, founder and president of the American Institute of Philanthropy. "A nonprofit has to be concerned about appearance. And they need to be trusted if they depend on donations."

Borochoff said he cannot recall another case of a nonprofit knowingly hiring someone convicted of a serious financial crime.

"It's harder to trust when you have people with this kind of background working for you. . . . They're losing sight of their purpose and mission. They're not an agency to rehabilitate criminals. They provide hospice service. That's what they should focus on," Borochoff said.

Hospice board members no longer comment about the nonprofit, referring reporters to Bell. Board chairwoman Sharon Miletich responded to questions about Wynn by releasing a statement that did not directly address the issue.

Bell said he was outraged that news of Wynn's criminal past has been made public, speculating that information from Wynn's confidential employment file was improperly leaked.

"We're outraged someone would betray confidential employee information and use it in an effort to discredit Hospice in the public mind," he said.

Bell said the disclosure is related to several recent lawsuits by former employees of Hospice.

Those lawsuits raise numerous charges, including allegations that Hospice misused donations by diverting them to its for-profit software company.

Federal prosecutors in Savannah accused Wynn of writing checks to herself from 1991 to 1995 using a transit authority account. She pleaded guilty to the criminal charges, telling a judge in 1996 that a bipolar disorder and an identity problem led her to steal.

"Basically, I'm a good person who has done something bad and should go to prison," she told a judge.

Prosecutors said she used $12,444 of the money she stole to run for Chatham County tax commissioner, losing the 1994 election.

Wynn originally pleaded guilty to embezzlement and 100 money laundering charges. But she later challenged her plea, saying she didn't understand what she was doing because of mental illness and poor instructions from her attorney.

Prosecutors agreed in 2001 to drop the money laundering counts to forgo the expense of fighting a long appeal, court papers show. By then, she had served her prison sentence.

Wynn's Hospice work does not violate her probation.

But Elaine Terenzi, chief federal probation officer in Tampa, said, "If she had access to a checking account, that would be something we would be interested in knowing."

- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report, which contains information from the Savannah Morning News.

[Last modified June 18, 2003, 01:48:11]

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