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LAWRENCE COUNTY Ex-officer for legion post faces trial on theft charge



Published: Thu, May 17, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



His attorney believes the matter is a civil issue and not a criminal matter.

By LAURE CIOFFI

VINDICATOR NEW CASTLE BUREAU

NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- Ronald Bongivengo says he did nothing wrong when he took more than $46,000 from American Legion Post 343.

It was compensation for his 13 months of work as the group's financial officer, his attorney said.

District Justice Melissa Amodie disagreed, however, and ordered Bongivengo to stand trial on one charge of theft by unlawful taking.

The Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office is prosecuting Bongivengo because his son, John, is an assistant Lawrence County district attorney.

Post members testified at a hearing Wednesday that accountants discovered 15 missing checks when they were preparing the post's tax forms sometime in the summer 1999. Bongivengo had resigned as financial officer in February 1999.

Discovered funds missing: Frank Bonfield, Bongivengo's successor, said post members contacted the bank and discovered that most of money from the missing checks had gone to Bongivengo's personal checking account.

An official from People's Bank of Western Pennsylvania testified that Bongivengo made 14 separate deposits with 15 American Legion Post 343 checks to his personal account from August 1998 to January 1999.

Dennis A. Elisco, Bongivengo's attorney, said the deposited checks were payment for his work as the financial officer and the post officers were fully aware of the amount.

American Legion Post officials disagree, however.

Bonfield testified that his pay as financial officer was $69 a month and $1 for each of the 700 to 750 members who pay dues at the post each year. When Bongivengo had the job, the monthly pay was only $49, he said.

Elisco attempted to have the case thrown out of criminal court, saying it was a civil matter.

"Everybody agrees Mr. Bongivengo had the right to a salary. Everybody agrees he has the authority to write the check out. He had the authority to pay himself," he said.

The dispute is really over the amount of money he was paid, Elisco said.

The fact that there were missing checks, only shows that Bongivengo made mistakes in his bookkeeping, his attorney said.

Pushed for audit: Elisco pointed out that Bongivengo constantly urged post officials to have a professional audit of their financial records. When they didn't, he quit.

Elisco contends that post officials have pushed for criminal charges because they know they can't pursue his client in civil court.

Before leaving his job as financial officer, Bongivengo had the post commander and president sign a document saying he had turned over all financial records to them and they could not hold him responsible for any missing documents.

"The plausibility of someone [doing something criminal and] leaving this kind of paper trail and asking the Post to do audits and then making deposits into his private account is ridiculous," Elisco said.

cioffi@vindy.com




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