The police chief of a small Gloucester County municipality and his wife were charged yesterday with stealing $150,000 from the New Jersey branch of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a volunteer organization in which they both were once actively involved.
New Jersey Attorney General Stuart Rabner said Clayton Police Chief Frank Winters, 60, and his wife, Bernice, 56, "brazenly" siphoned money from the organization while serving as volunteers on various MADD committees and chapters over three years beginning in 2001.
At different times in the late 1990s, Frank and Bernice Winters served as chairman or chairwoman of the state chapter. In 2001, Frank Winters was appointed to the organization's national board of directors.
Both dropped out of the organization about three years ago, according to officials with the state chapter.
Rabner said yesterday that Frank Winters' "prominent position" with the organization helped him carry out the scheme. The couple were served with complaints yesterday morning charging them with conspiracy and theft by deception, Rabner said. They were not arrested but are scheduled to appear at a preliminary court hearing May 1.
Frank Winters called the allegations "absolute nonsense."
"It's preposterous and we're going to find out why and what this is," he said. "I really do not understand exactly what this is about. I'm just really furious over it, very upset over it."
In addition to serving as Clayton police chief, Frank Winters is a member of the Borough Council in nearby Newfield. He also ran for assemblyman in 2005 on the Republican ticket in the Fourth District.
Rabner would not say what started the investigation into the alleged $150,000 scam, but he said investigators with a state police organized-crime and corruption unit had been working on the case for more than six months.
The attorney general said the Winterses had set up two companies, Holiday House and Lasting Impact, that provided trinkets such as keychains, pins, and other souvenir-type items for groups and organizations.
Rabner said that the Winterses never disclosed to MADD that they owned the companies and that MADD had issued at least 80 checks totaling $150,000 to the companies for items that were never delivered.
The Winterses used the money generated by the bogus orders for personal expenses, Rabner said, including mortgage, car and credit card payments, and meals at restaurants.
"The alleged scheme is shocking on a number of levels," Rabner said in a prepared statement issued during a news conference in Trenton yesterday afternoon. "Ripping off donations to MADD which were intended to make our streets and highways safe, is unconscionable."
Rabner said the Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office had temporarily taken over supervision of the 15-member Clayton Borough Police Department.
He said it would be up to borough officials to determine a long-term solution to the problem, but that Frank Winters had been barred from entering the police station pending the outcome of the case.
Clayton Mayor Patricia Gannon declined to comment last night. She said borough officials would meet at a later date to discuss the issue.
Teresa Stevens, the state executive director of MADD, said members of her organization were "saddened" by the allegations.
She said the volunteer organization, which provides counseling for victims and the families of victims of accidents caused by drunken drivers, operates on an annual budget of about $150,000 - the amount the Winterses were charged with stealing.
Stevens said the couple stopped their volunteer work for MADD in 2004, shortly after she became state executive director. At that time, Stevens said, the organization shifted procedures and gave the executive director strict oversight of all financial matters.
Before 2004, she said, oversight was a shared responsibility of members of the state committee, on which Frank Winters served.
Frank and Bernice Winters had been involved with the organization for more than a decade and had been honored for their volunteer work. Each received a community service award from the Gloucester County Human Relations Commission in 2001 in recognition of their long-standing commitment to MADD. At the time, the couple said they were working to make the judicial system more responsive to the needs and concerns of the victims of accidents.
In an interview with The Inquirer in 2001, they said they got involved because of their personal experiences with drunk drivers.
Bernice Winters said she was nearly killed in an accident in Colorado in 1971, and the couple said the best friend of their daughter was killed in an accident in 1989. Both accidents were caused by drunk drivers, they said.
"My involvement came out of my anger at seeing the inequity of the judicial system and thinking if you had enough angry voices, collectively you could be heard," Bernice Winters said at the time.