Thousands in Cookie Money Stolen From Va. Scout Troop

By Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 5, 2005

It took long weekends camped outside their local grocery stores and hours tromping door-to-door, but the Girl Scouts in Springfield Troop 1868 eventually sold enough Thin Mints and Tagalongs to help fund a camping trip to Hersheypark in Hershey, Pa.

But then the mother in charge of the troop's cookie sale vanished, as did her young daughter and $4,483 of the cash, troop leaders said. The summer trip was canceled.

Troop parents were stunned that anyone would rip off an institution such as the Scouts. Their instinct, some said, was to call the police. After all, it's a crime.

The Girl Scout Council of the Nation's Capital called it something else: a debt.

Council officials told parents the missing money would be handled the same way they deal with the many tens of thousands of dollars of bad debt that accumulates each year after their annual cookie sale: through a collection agency.

It's been nearly four months, and some Scout parents think the council has tried long enough to locate the mother. The missing funds, they said, should be treated like any other theft and reported to police. Stealing that amount of money is a felony in Virginia.

"If someone steals from you, you call the cops and you report it. You don't go through a credit agency," said Emilio Velez, whose step-granddaughter is in Troop 1868. "This is theft. This is stealing money from kids."

Selling Girl Scout cookies is big business for the nonprofit organization, which in Washington collects about 75 percent of its $10 million annual budget from the popular sale.

This year, Scout troops in the region sold about 4 million of the $3.50 boxes of cookies, grossing about $14 million. Officials said about $63,000 of that money has not been recovered, the result of bad checks and tardy payments.

Similar debt occurs each year, and the money is sought through a three-step process that is first handled internally. If the debt is not cleared, the complaint goes to a credit agency and then to a credit management service.

Scouting officials said it is the best way to ensure that the volunteers who run the sale, and who might inadvertently misplace cash and receipts, are not falsely accused of a crime.

"We don't consider it a police matter," said Charlene Meidlinger, the council's assistant executive director. "We have not been robbed at gunpoint. Our house has not been broken into. This is a debt that is owed to us as business."

Fairfax County police yesterday said it is up to the victim to report a crime. "Nothing forces them to come forward," said spokeswoman Mary Ann Jennings.

Some councils do call police, said council spokeswoman Mary Layton. "We choose not to." Council officials said they were "not able to make any kind of contact" with the woman. Troop 1868 parents said it was her first year with the Scouts.

Meidlinger described the annual debt as "a part of the cost of doing business," noting that this year, less than one-half of 1 percent of the council's profits remained uncollected. Still, she said, it's disheartening for parents and Scout leaders who are faced with dishonesty in such an unexpected place.

"You get bad checks," Meidlinger said. "When you have 4,500 volunteers helping you, a couple aren't going to be honest people, and that's too bad. . . . It is doubly insulting because it's the Girl Scouts, for heaven's sakes. . . . It's like taking money from a lemonade stand. It's wrong."

Officials said that a 60-cent profit from every box of cookies is returned to the troop that made the sale, helping to fund such activities as the June Camp-O-Ree at Hershey Park.

Parents with Troop 1868 said the missing money was discovered about the time registration was underway for the annual Scouting event. A decision was made to skip it until the troop's finances could be straightened out.

In the meantime, parents said, they weren't sure how to address the missing money with their children.

Ellen Giuseppe has two daughters involved in Scouting.

"The council didn't want us to tell the girls what happened," Giuseppe said. "They said, 'It's an adult thing,' but this is part of life, and adults make mistakes. I thought this was a learning opportunity."

Although some parents tried to shield their children from the news, Patty Kelly, who leads Troop 1868, said the girls eventually found out.

"So we discussed it with them," Kelly said. "We made it clear it wasn't the child's fault."

Troop leaders said the council made sure they received their profits from the sale -- $1,072 -- and their individual prizes for selling 1,788 boxes of cookies. Giuseppe said they have scheduled a private trip to Hershey in the fall.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company