Former T.J. High official pleads guilty to embezzlement

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 7, 2010

A former financial officer at the region's top science and technology magnet school pleaded guilty Thursday morning in U.S. District Court in Alexandria to embezzling money from student activities and sports accounts.

Susan Thanh Litwin, 37, who resigned in March after 18 years with the Fairfax County school system, withdrew $279,000 in student funds from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, using most of it to play blackjack in Atlantic City and Las Vegas, court records show.

"She has a gambling addiction," said her attorney, Gregory Beckwith. Litwin, of Woodbridge, relinquished ownership of a house in Florida on Thursday morning and has plans to forfeit her retirement savings from the school system, worth about $60,000.

"We are trying to pay it all back," he said.

Litwin worked as a financial technician for the magnet school, where she had authority over multiple accounts. Federal investigators found 27 instances between March 2008 and January 2010 when she wrote checks to herself or withdrew funds for personal use.

She deposited about $80,000 back into the accounts after winning streaks in the casinos and before a series of financial audits in June, her attorney said.

"Susan Litwin didn't just steal from her employer, she stole from the students at Thomas Jefferson High School and those who donate funds to support public education," Neil H. MacBride, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said in a news release. "She broke the trust given to her and needs to be held accountable."

In March, Litwin had recently returned from maternity leave when federal investigators approached her at school for questioning. She confessed, telling investigators that she used the money for gambling and to pay off credit card debt and make mortgage payments, records show.

She has been caring for her now-5-month-old daughter while under court supervision and has been seeing a counselor once a week for her gambling addiction, her attorney said.

Litwin came to the United States from Vietnam when she was 12 years old, Beckwith said. For 15 years, she worked as an office manager at Bailey's Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences in Falls Church. She joined Thomas Jefferson High School in 2007.

At the brief hearing before Judge Claude M. Hilton, she said she understood the charges and her legal rights and then pleaded guilty. Because the school and the school system receive federal funding, the crime was treated as a federal offense.

Litwin's sentencing is scheduled for July 30. The punishment could include as much as 10 years in federal prison and $250,000 in fines. Beckwith said Litwin has sought to cooperate fully with prosecutors in the hope of receiving leniency.

After the hearing, Litwin apologized to her former employer and to the students she has known over the years. "I love the kids. Working with them . . . it's my passion," she said.

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