Former executive director of local Parkinson Foundation accused of stealing $28k from charity

November 30, 2018

The former executive director of the Parkinson Foundation of Western Pennsylvania has been charged with stealing more than $28,000 in foundation money, according to the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office.

Investigators say Barbara Farrell, 58, of Forest Hills, used her position at the charity to steal the money.

Farrell is accused of writing more than $17,000 in fraudulent checks over a four-month period that were deposited into her bank account, according to an affidavit filed in the case. Authorities said nearly $14,000 in checks were written out to Farrell’s friend and former babysitter.

Farrell also is accused writing $1,000 worth of checks payable to “petty cash” without supplying supporting documentation, diverting more than $1,800 she said was to pay for conference speakers but instead ended up in her own account and billing the foundation for more than $1,000 worth of flowers that were delivered to her home, according to court records.

When questioned about the checks, Farrell told investigators that the woman to whom the checks were written performed work from home on behalf of the charity, but the woman did not have a bank account so Farrell deposited the payments into her own account and paid her, court records show.

The employee who discovered the allegedly fraudulent payments told investigators that some of the duties listed for the work that was allegedly performed by Farrell’s friend were “vague” and that the jobs were actually her responsibility to perform.

Farrell’s lawyer told detectives that the woman who received the payments was actually using the money to purchase narcotics on Farrell’s behalf because Farrell had become addicted to prescription painkillers as a result of multiple surgeries during the previous year.

Farrell began working for the foundation as the director of development in January 2011 and as appointed executive director later that year. She was dismissed from her position in March.

The Parkinson Foundation announced in March that it was investigating what it called financial irregularities, and in a statement issued Monday, Stephen M. Vitunic, its current executive director, said the foundation fully cooperated with the criminal investigation and made changes to its organizational structure because of the issues surrounding the alleged theft.

The foundation appointed retired University of Pittsburgh Vice Chancellor for Communications Kenneth Service to serve as interim executive director in March. Service managed the foundation’s operations, reviewed its organizational structure and led a search that led to Vitunic’s hiring in September, according to the statement.

The foundation changed its financial and accounting policies to include tighter financial controls, according to the statement.

Since the issue came to light in February, there has been no interruption in any programs or services of the foundation, according to the statement.

Farrell has made “significant restitution” to the foundation, Service said, although he declined to provide an exact amount she had returned.

Farrell was charged with three counts of theft by unlawful taking and one count of receiving stolen property. She surrendered to authorities Monday morning and was released on a non-monetary bond following arraignment.

Her attorney, Samir Sarna, didn’t immediately return messages seeking comment Monday.

Farrell faces a preliminary hearing on Nov. 29, before Bellevue district Judge Tara Smith.

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