Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Church worker indicted in theft

She's accused of stealing $210,000 over nine months

By Sheila McLaughlin
and Erica Solvig
The Cincinnati Enquirer

LEBANON - A former church secretary/treasurer accused of stealing $210,000 from Mason United Methodist Church was indicted Monday on a felony charge of aggravated theft.

Authorities said Diana Kembel, 45, of Hamilton Township, spent one-third of the church's annual operating budget by writing checks to herself and by using the church's debit and credit cards to buy personal computers and household items from stores, including Linens N' Things.

The thefts occurred from January through September 2002, when Kembel was put on unpaid administrative leave after the pastor discovered that the money was missing. She was fired in November.

Kembel faces up to five years in prison if convicted of the theft charge. She faces arraignment in Warren County Common Pleas Court in the next week or so.

"She has been and is very remorseful," Kembel's attorney, David Ernst said. "Diana is a woman of faith, and she has made some mistakes. She has been cooperative about it and will continue to be."

However, Ernst disputes the amount that authorities say Kembel stole.

"We believe the amount attributed to her is substantially less that what they allege," Ernst said.

He declined to discuss why Kembel, a married mother of teen-age children who was active in fund raising for the Kings Schools music program, took money from the church.

Kembel could not be reached. Church officials said they hired her in 1999, but she was not a member of the congregation.

Getting the money back is among the congregation's top priorities, said church spokesman Bill Mitchell.

"It's a significant priority when you consider the fact that ... it came out of the pockets and bank accounts of its members," he said. "We certainly believe there's an obligation to make every effort possible to make sure those funds are returned to the church."

The church, which has one of the largest congregations in the city, was insured for up to $5,000 for internal thefts, Mitchell said. Despite the missing money, Mason United Methodist is not behind in paying bills and does not anticipate having to cut any of its mission programs, he said.

Asked if Kembel intended to reimburse the church, Ernst replied: "We're working on it."

Meanwhile, the congregation has pledged to give 40 to 50 percent more this year in contributions. Members were aware the church was having financial troubles last fall, Mitchell said. Most were not aware of the theft until the Enquirer reported it last week.

Stover and other church officials held a congregational meeting about the theft last Thursday. About 100 people attended.

Several church members declined to comment or did not return phone calls.

Kembel served as a vice president of the Kings Music Association board last year, drumming up corporate donations for the program. She did not seek appointment to the board this year, said association president Phil Grosvenor.

Warren County Prosecutor Rachel Hutzel said there is no indication that any of the stolen money was donated to the music program.

"I'm floored," Grosvenor said after hearing of the indictment. "We're sad. You go from shock to `why do people do these sorts of things?' "

E-mail smclaughlin@enquirer.com or esolvig@enquirer.com.

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