A former treasurer for Exponent II, one of Mormonism’s longest-running feminist magazines, stole more than $100,000 from the nonprofit foundation in Boston, the group announced Saturday.
Suzette Smith, a professional organizer in Virginia, became Exponent’s volunteer treasurer in 2012 and embezzled donations to the group for her personal use from then until 2017, when her fraudulent activities came to light.
“This was not an isolated incident or one-time lapse in judgment; she actively chose to steal from Exponent II in over 600 different transactions,” the board wrote in a blog post. “She deliberately took measures to hide her activities, such as opening multiple bank accounts, limiting access to those accounts, and falsifying financial statements to make board members think that Exponent II was barely solvent.”
The board reported the case to the FBI earlier this year, because the crime was conducted over state lines. After an investigation, the agency “presented the evidence to Suzette,” the group wrote. “She pled guilty [in court] to the crime of felony wire fraud on November 16, 2018. She will appear before a judge to receive a sentence in February 2019.”
According to a “Statement of Facts” listed by the U.S. District Court for Eastern Virginia, “Smith transferred or paid back approximately $84,319.70 [of] the approximately $191,674.91 that [she] embezzled. Smith’s total amount stolen from [the nonprofit] was approximately $107,451.21."
Smith’s deception has been a huge emotional blow to all those women working tirelessly and without pay to keep the women’s magazine afloat since its founding in 1974, created to explore female stories and issues in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“All our hearts are broken, especially those women who worked for decades to build the organization into a solvent, sustainable endeavor,” said Carrie Salisbury, an Exponent blogger. “The way Suzette preyed upon the trust and vulnerability of a group of Mormon women to steal their ‘widow’s mite’ is a betrayal that is rocking our organization to the very core. The only thing sustaining us now is that our trust in each other is not broken, and we’re doing all we can to rebuild.”
In response to this incident, Exponent II has implemented several “financial safeguards,” guarding who has access to bank accounts and money handling.
Smith, who faces possible prison time as well as required restitution and possible penalties, said Saturday she was deeply sorry for what she did.
She had “made terrible mistakes,” Smith wrote in an email, betraying women and a project that she loved, while acting “for my personal gain.”
“The slide into taking the money was incremental,” Smith said in a shortened version of what she will say to the court when she is sentenced Feb. 15. “As part of my rationalization, I pushed aside the details, and only later, after the audit, was I shocked to realize that I had stolen over $100,000.”
Still, she admits she was “shameless and arrogant. I acted selfishly and with no regard for others. What makes it worse is that Exponent II was a family to me. They trusted me with an opportunity to be a part of an amazing organization.”
She “acted outside the boundaries of society’s morals and norms,” Smith said. “I went against my own moral compass — of values such as honesty, trust and loyalty.”
She is ready “to accept justice, in whatever fines and punishments the courts see fit to place on me,” Smith said. “My belief in Christ and his grace remains strong. It is my wish to walk the path of redemption.”
Smith’s apology rings hollow to Exponent II editors and former editors, who have struggled for more than a year to regain financial stability for the magazine after her deception.
She has continued “to minimize and hide the extent of her betrayal up until this plea bargain,” said former editor Aimee Evans Hickman, “when she confessed her crimes to the United States government.”
That’s something she has never done, Hickman said, “to her Exponent sisters.”