The former director of the Riverside United Methodist Church Children’s Center was indicted Tuesday in Bibb County Superior Court on charges that she stole money that parents paid for day care and forged fraudulent paychecks between 2005 and 2008.
Paula Cowan is charged with 109 counts of forgery and 297 counts of theft by taking. The number of counts makes the case one of the largest indictments ever filed in Georgia, said Laurens County District Attorney Craig Fraser.
“I’ve never seen a larger one,” he said.
A forensic audit of church records uncovered theft of $150,000, but Cowan is alleged to have stolen as much as a half-million dollars, said Fraser, who was appointed to prosecute the case by the state Attorney General’s Office.
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Bibb County District Attorney Howard Simms said his office is not prosecuting the case because one of his prosecutors is affiliated with the church. Simms said he requested an outside prosecutor to prevent the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Authorities say Cowan lives in Macon, but she is not listed in local phone directories.
Fraser said Cowan is accused of forging checks issued to former employees of the day care center and taking $70,000. The indictment lists checks written to 10 different employees. The rest of the theft stems from Cowan taking parents’ payments for day care, Fraser said.
The theft was discovered in 2008 when a former employee received a W-2 tax form from the church and came forward to say the form reflected more money than the employee earned, Fraser said.
The church then discovered a signature had been forged on the back of a check, and an audit was launched.
Cowan resigned from her position in March 2008, unaware of the investigation into the church’s financial records that began that same month, according to a statement from the church.
She started work as director of the Children’s Center in October 2002, said Kelly Roberson, director of communications for the South Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Charles F. Huber, director of administration for the church, wrote in a statement released Tuesday that the church has reviewed and strengthened its financial policies in the wake of the theft.
“We are committed to being good stewards of the funds paid by the parents for their child’s care and all other funds entrusted to Riverside United Methodist Church,” he wrote. “We will continue to make any necessary revisions to our policies and procedures to ensure the highest level of financial integrity.”
If convicted on all counts, Cowan could face a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison for each forgery charge and 15 years in prison for each theft charge. In total, she could be sentenced to serve 5,500 years, Fraser said. Cowan also could be sentenced to pay restitution to the church, he said.
“We’re going to do everything we can to recoup the church’s money,” Fraser said.
Although the case is being prosecuted by the Laurens County District Attorney’s Office, the case will be tried in Macon, Fraser said.
To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.