SNOW HILL — An Ocean Pines woman was sentenced this week to five years in jail, all but two suspended, and ordered to pay restitution after absconding with well over $400,000 from the Worcester County’s Teachers Association (WCTA).

In August, Denise Inez Owens, 58, was charged with two counts of theft over $500 and one count of theft scheme over $500 for alleging bilking the WCTA out of $433,784 while acting in the capacity of the association’s treasurer. In February 2012, Worcester County Bureau of Investigations (WCBI) detectives began an investigation into theft involving the WCTA.

On Tuesday, Owens in court admitted taking the money to cover her long-time gambling addiction. She pleaded guilty to one count of theft scheme over $500 and was sentenced to five years with all but two suspended. She was also ordered to pay $211,545 in restitution to the National Union Fire Insurance Company.

The investigation revealed Owens, who served as treasurer from 2006 to 2009, was in charge of all of the association’s financial transactions during that time frame. It was also learned Owens had full access to all of the association’s bank accounts. During her time as treasurer, it was learned Owens allegedly wrote numerous checks to herself and others. Owens made further withdraws from the account and used the money for personal issues and gambling debt.

In early 2009, a forensic audit of the WCTA’s accounts was conducted and the audit determined the association was short $433,784 and that the shortage was related to Owens’ theft scheme. According to the statement of charges, an informant told a WCBI detective in March that Owens was asked to resign in 2009 when she was confronted about the money missing from the WCTA account. In a second meeting, Owens allegedly admitted taking an undisclosed amount of money from the association.

Owens and the WCTA’s attorneys had another meeting in Annapolis following the forensic audit in 2009 and later agreed to have Owens begin paying restitution without notifying authorities about the crime. Essentially, Owens agreed to pay back the pilfered money and the WCTA created a new bank account to receive the restitution payments without alerting law enforcement about the $400,000-plus in stolen WCTA funds.

However, WCBI followed up with its own investigation and interviewed Owens on March 5. Owens confirmed she was the WCTA treasurer from 2006 to 2009 and said she left the position in 2009 because of a divorce and other personal issues. However, when pressed further, Owens then asked the WCBI detective if he knew about the other bank account created for restitution.

According to charging documents, the WCTA contracted with the National Union Fire Insurance Company, a bonding company, to facilitate Owens’ restitution plan. Through subpoenas and court orders, WCBI detectives were able to obtain all of the bonding company’s documents pertaining to the WCTA.

The investigation revealed in June 2009, Owens completed a written confession of her involvement in the theft from the WCTA. Owens said she was the only WCTA board member who had access to the two bank accounts and that during her time as treasurer she had written unauthorized checks totaling approximately $440,000.

Due to the substantial loss, the Maryland State Education Association (MSEA) hired its own independent firm to conduct an audit of the WCTA records. That investigation revealed a total of $368,984 in unauthorized checks written to Owens, a total of $40,351 in unauthorized checks to two individuals, a total of $17,585 in unauthorized checks to a third individual and a single check for $3,500 to a fourth. The recipients’ names are included in the charging documents, but weren’t revealed by this publication at the time because the extent of their involvement is not known. Meanwhile, following Owens’ indictment, the MSEA said in an official statement it learned of the improprieties associated with the WCTA’s funds and probed Owens for answers.

“When MSEA discovered that WCTA had fallen into arrears in its scheduled state transmission of dues, the association confronted Ms. Owens, then the treasurer of the WCTA,” the statement reads. “Although Ms. Owens promptly resigned her position as treasurer and agreed to restitution, MSEA triggered a full investigation, including a forensic audit. The investigation determined the funds in question were owed to the MSEA and the National Education Association (NEA) rather than the WCTA, and that the local dues money was not part of the mishandled funds.”

The MSEA statement goes on to state the bonding company’s investigation was closed with no criminal or civil action taken.