Friday February 22, 2013

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- James Beckwith was found dead Wednesday of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound, the same day federal authorities filed a complaint alleging he embezzled $440,000 from Southern Vermont College while serving as acting president.

The Office of the United States Attorney for the District of Vermont filed a civil forfeiture complaint Wednesday seeking to seize assets in the name of Beckwith, who began working as chief financial officer and chief operating officer for SVC in 2007.

Beckwith, 58, served one year as acting president beginning in January 2012 while President Karen Gross took a leave of absence to work for the U.S. Department of Education.

"I think that this is a difficult and sad time for all of us who knew Jim," Gross said Thursday after meetings for faculty and students to address the developments had been held at the small liberal arts campus in Bennington. "His contributions to our community will be remembered."

Vermont State Police were called after 6 p.m. Wednesday regarding a possible missing person and found Beckwith dead at his South Londonderry property. His body has been transported to the Chief Medical Examiner's office to undergo an autopsy and toxicology examination, police said.

The investigation is ongoing, however police do not suspect foul play.


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Beckwith was accused of embezzling $440,000 from the college between October 2012 and January by fraudulently inducing college officials to issue three checks in the amount of $100,000, $160,000 and $180,000 to Merrill Lynch, according to the forfeiture complaint and an accompanying FBI affidavit.

Gross declined to comment on the embezzlement allegations, referring to them as "personnel matters" and saying she wished to respect the privacy of Beckwith's family.

The affidavit states Beckwith told college officials the funds were to settle legal claims arising from a failed dormitory project, however the three checks were actually deposited into a personal account Beckwith shared with his wife at Merrill Lynch.

According to the affidavit, Beckwith used the proceeds of the first two checks -- totaling $260,000 -- to pay off balances on mortgage and home equity loans on his residence in South Londonderry.

The complaint alleges Beckwith's residence, as well as the money in his Merrill Lynch account, are forfeitable as proceeds of mail fraud and as property involved in money laundering.

No charges against Beckwith were filed. Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Waples said civil forfeitures are often filed quickly to prevent assets from being dissipated.

The college began looking into the alleged embezzlement after a financial audit for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2012 found "suspicious financial transactions involving purported vendor payments made by Beckwith," according to the affidavit.

Subsequent investigation into various college bank accounts then revealed the three checks totaling $440,000 that were deposited into Beckwith's personal account. Accounting notations for the checks allegedly written under false pretenses say the money was to "reimburse York Management," and "reimburse expenses relating to dorm project for York Management." The notations also state that the checks were to be given to "JEB" to deliver to attorneys. Last summer Beckwith announced plans to break ground on a new residential hall in the fall, but the project had been called off by the time fall arrived. The college has since said the decision was made by SVC's lenders due to uncertainty whether the college's growth plan was realistic.

The affidavit indicates Beckwith admitted to the college's legal counsel he had officials issue the three checks totaling $440,000, however nobody handling the litigation concerning the dormitory received the checks, nor did Beckwith inform them of the payments.

Instead, the checks were mailed to the Merrill Lynch branch in Stamford, Conn., and deposited on Nov. 6 and Nov. 28, 2012 and Jan. 17, according to records included in the affidavit.

Beckwith and his wife purchased property in South Londonderry in 2006 and obtained a mortgage on the property for $300,000 in 2008. Records indicate the balance of that mortgage was paid off on Feb. 5, about three weeks after Beckwith withdrew $100,000 from his Merrill Lynch account. Records also show a $200,000 home equity line of credit secured by Beckwith and his wife in 2008 was paid off in November 2012 using $160,000 withdrawn from Beckwith's account.

Beckwith resigned from SVC on Feb. 3 and the affidavit states the FBI was contacted Feb. 8 by legal counsel from the college.

At the time of his resignation neither he nor the college would comment on the reason for his abrupt departure. "It's just a natural transition. There's no reason behind it," he told the Banner on Jan. 6. "I've been there seven years and it was just time to move on, that's all."

Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette said Thursday his department, at the request of the college, provided additional security checks at SVC and around the community as a result of Beckwith's resignation.

Bennington County Sheriff Chad Schmidt said last week his department had been contracted by the college "to provide security" as well, however he declined to specify the nature of the security or reason for it. SVC's Dean of Students Anne Hopkins Gross said last week the only reason the college contracted with the Sheriff's Department was for assistance updating its emergency and safety procedures.

The college came together in various community-style meetings Thursday. "It's an opportunity for us to mutually support each other as we process Mr. Beckwith's death," Gross said. "We are a very supportive community and one in which people have a deep commitment to our students and I am sure that we will rise to the occasion to ensure that our students get the remarkable education that they deserve."

The college postponed one event Thursday but otherwise continued operating as scheduled. School counselors were available on campus for anybody who sought support.

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at draspuzzi@benningtonbanner.com or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi