Merced consultant accused of theft

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comNovember 17, 2012 

— Longtime local political consultant Mary Ward has been charged with embezzlement of about $23,000 from the Agribusiness Committee of Merced County -- of which she was the treasurer.

Ward failed to appear for the arraignment hearing Tuesday at Merced County Superior Court, according to the district attorney's office. Bail has been set at $50,000, and there is a warrant out for her arrest.

During a telephone conversation Friday, Ward declined to comment on the allegations. She said her lawyer should be reached for statements but wouldn't say who was representing her.

The Merced Police Department started an investigation in June after being contacted by the chairwoman of the Agribusiness Committee, Sharon Gallaway.

According to a police report, Gallaway became suspicious after Ward told the committee during a meeting that it had an account balance of more than $28,000. Gallaway had been previously notified by the committee's bank that account funds had fallen to below $10,000.

After authorities contacted Ward, she admitted taking the funds, according to the police report. She told police that the Internal Revenue Service had frozen her assets, and she was afraid of losing her home.

Ward provided police with an itemized list of checks she'd written to herself from the committee's account, according to the police report.

"We received a police report, and that report supports the allegation made in the complaint, which is she embezzled funding," said Walter Wall, deputy district attorney handling the case. "We're claiming she committed a felony."

While Ward has agreed to repay the money, Gallaway expressed skepticism the funds would be recovered.

"I don't know if she has the funds to pay us back," Gallaway said. "It would be great to get our money back, but if we don't, we have sufficient funds to carry on."

The Agribusiness Committee organizes the Farm City Banquet at the Merced County Fairgrounds. The nonprofit also puts on the Progressive Agriculture Safety Day for local third-graders and provides college scholarships related to agriculture.

"It was an unfortunate event," Gallaway said. "The committee has put into place procedures that will prevent this from happening in the future. I would like to assure the community that we have sufficient funds for our scholarship recipients."

Ward had also been serving as the president of the Merced Business and Professional Women's Organization. Several of the checks Ward had written were made out to the women's organization, according to court documents.

Ward is probably best known for her work as a political consultant with Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani.

The two had a falling out during a political scandal in which Ward claimed she was fired in retaliation for warning that a staffer for Galgiani had been inappropriately billing his time.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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