Former college leader found dead after allegations of embezzlement
By Patrick McArdle
STAFF WRITER | February 22,2013
Patrick McArdle / Staff File Photo
James Beckwith is shown in June 2012.
BENNINGTON — James Beckwith, former acting president of Southern Vermont College, was found dead at his home Wednesday after the U.S. attorney’s office announced plans to seize the home because he allegedly paid his mortgage with $440,000 embezzled from the college between October and January,
Detective Sgt. Richard Holden of the Vermont State Police said Beckwith, 58, of Londonderry was found dead at his home Wednesday night with a wound “consistent with that of a self-inflicted gunshot.”
Holden said police had gone to the home after Beckwith was reported missing around 6:20 p.m. Wednesday.
While police are investigating the death, Holden said they did not suspect foul play.
Beckwith came to Southern Vermont College in 2007 as the chief financial officer and chief operations officer. He resigned Feb. 3, according to the college President Karen Gross.
When Gross spent 2012 in Washington, D.C., as a senior policy adviser at the U.S. Department of Education, Beckwith served as Southern Vermont College’s acting president.
Gross said she wanted to be clear that despite the allegation of a large amount of money being embezzled, the college is financially stable.
“We are not worried about our finances,” she said. “We have had a balanced budget since I’ve been here and we expect to have a balanced budget for the current year. We do have insurance that covers losses of this sort and while one never hopes to have to use that insurance, that is exactly why it’s there.”
The college will continue with the semester, Gross said.
“The school is continuing to operate as usual,” she said. “While we are saddened by Jim’s unexpected death, we remain committed to our students and to their educational and career success.”
The U.S. attorney’s office announced Thursday that prosecutors had filed a complaint against Beckwith requiring him to forfeit assets they claim he gained through mail fraud. U.S. Magistrate Judge John Conroy found probable cause that the home belonging to Beckwith and his wife, Marjorie Daitch, was subject to seizure and civil forfeiture.
FBI Special Agent Jeffrey Alford wrote in an affidavit that college officials had discovered what they believed was suspicious financial activity during a recent financial audit. Their investigation led them to three checks, totaling $440,000 which Beckwith had convinced college officials were needed for a dormitory project that had fallen through, the affidavit said.
Beckwith announced last year that a new four-story residence hall would be built and open in time for the 2013-14 school year. But in November, college officials said the dormitory was on hold.
Alford said Beckwith resigned after being questioned about the three checks. Beckwith told an attorney for the college that the checks would be used to settle litigation over the aborted dormitory project, but that attorney told Alford that Beckwith never sent the checks to the law firm that was handling the litigation, the affidavit said.
Instead, the three checks were sent by mail to a bank in Stamford, Conn., and deposited in Beckwith’s cash management account, Alford said.
Investigators believe Beckwith used the money to pay down his mortgage and a line of credit secured by the home.
Gross said Thursday she had met with faculty and staff during the day and planned to meet with students in the evening to “share thoughts and provide each other with mutual support in a difficult situation.”
“I think those kinds of gathering are helpful in a small community because they allow you to see the strength of the community and its capacity to pull together,” she said.
Many students and faculty were saddened by the “whole situation,” according to Gross.
“I think one of the hardest things for younger people and adults is to explain the unexplainable,” she said. “There are some situations for which there is no explanation.”