New York State employees stole cash from the personal accounts of people with disabilities to pay for everything from live shows and restaurant outings to Wal-Mart shopping sprees, according to a report released Thursday by the state’s inspector general.

One of those employees with the New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, Lynn Knightner, stole money from residents with developmental disabilities to take her family to see a performance of “How to Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular” in 2012. She also made “questionable” restaurant gift card purchases to restaurants her colleagues do not remember taking any of their residents to, according to the report.

“With disturbing regularity we have seen the shameless preying on a vulnerable population by those charged with their care,” New York State Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott said in a statement.

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The pilfering of cash accounts maintained by the New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities was described as “widespread and prolific.” The report highlighted findings from 10 separate investigations across the state, from the Buffalo region to the Hudson Valley and found inadequate accounting safeguards and outright thefts.

Among the mismanagement and thefts highlighted in the report and in the inspector general’s news release:

• Knightner, a developmental assistant for a West Seneca group home, stole more than $250 from six residents in 2012 to take her own family to see the “How to Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular.” She attempted to cover up the fact that none of the residents went to the show by buying them souvenirs from the show and playing the movie DVD for them so they would be familiar with the story. She also used the residents’ money to buy restaurant gift cards and fabricated restaurant receipts. As a result of the investigation, Knightner was arrested and pleaded guilty to larceny and falsifying business records. Knightner’s plea required that she pay restitution to the victims and perform 100 hours of community service

• An employee for a group residence in East Randolph in Cattaraugus County was charged with stealing money from the personal accounts of seven residents in 2013. The investigation also revealed that the residents’ personal items, valued at $820, also went missing at the group home.

• In late 2014, an employee pretended to use the personal bank cards of her group home residents outside Albany to buy Christmas gifts on their behalf. In reality she used the bank cards on purchases for herself.

• The house manager for a community residence in the Hudson Valley stole nearly $7,400 from resident accounts to buy name-brand sneakers, musical equipment and a recliner, among other things.

• An employee with a group home in Corning stole $130 in Wal-Mart gift cards that were supposed to be gifts for residents’ families in December 2012. The employee, Cheryl Collins, was seen on department store surveillance tape use the cards for herself and was arrested.

The thefts and improprieties were so common and widespread that more cases of theft and abuse were reported to the Inspector General’s Office even while the report was being written, according to the release.

The Office for People with Developmental Disabilities employs about 23,000 employees, who provide services to approximately 128,000 New York residents with developmental disabilities in institutional and community settings.

In response to the findings, Leahy Scott made recommendations that the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities has agreed to adopt. Recommendations include more training for the handling and oversight of personal cash accounts and new audits to better track and determine how group home residents’ money is being spent.

“These heinous crimes not only need to be vigorously investigated and prosecuted,” Leahy Scott said, “but significant reforms must also be implemented that not only make such crimes less feasible, but protects the integrity of funds in these personal accounts.”

© 2016 The Buffalo News
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