Former Episcopal Church Treasurer Ellen Cooke Pleads Guilty to Charges in Embezzlement Case

Episcopal News Service. February 8, 1996 [96-1374]

(ENS) Ellen F. Cooke, former national treasurer for the Episcopal Church, pleaded guilty, January 24, to transferring stolen money across state lines and tax evasion as she admitted stealing more than $1.5 million from the church.

In an appearance in United States District Court in Newark, New Jersey, that lasted about half an hour, Cooke waived her right to indictment by grand jury and admitted that she used her position to transfer church funds into her own bank accounts and to pay expenses for her family. She also admitted failing to pay tax on $310,000 that she stole from the church in 1993.

She told Judge Maryanne Trump Barry, however, that a psychiatric disorder keeps her from recalling the actual crimes she committed.

"I now believe and understand that I did embezzle funds from the Episcopal Church," Cooke said. "I can't say for sure that I knew at the time I knew what I was doing, but I do accept responsibility."

As Barry, vexed with Cooke's roundabout answers, pushed for a clear indication that Cooke understood the plea that she was making, Cooke repeated that "I now believe that I was not entitled to those funds. I know it was wrong. I can only believe that I knew at the time it was wrong."

Plato Cacheris of Washington D.C., Cooke's attorney, said a psychiatrist has diagnosed Cooke as suffering from "cyclothymia," which he described as a bipolar mental disorder that causes her to "black out certain events that happened in the past."

Cooke, who said she is currently taking lithium, an antidepressant, and Xanax, a tranquilizer, to treat her condition, said she had reviewed the records detailing the transfer of church funds to her own accounts and other misuse of funds. Having seen the evidence of her embezzlement, she said, "I accept that it is true."

Assistant United States Attorney Robert L. Ernst, who is prosecuting the case, said Cooke would be evaluated as well by a psychiatrist appointed by his office. Ernst said that he felt that prosecutors had been able to reach a resolution of the case in a surprisingly short time compared with similar cases.

Sentencing set for April 29

Barry set April 29 as the date for sentencing. Cooke faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine for the first count of transferring funds across state lines, and five years in federal prison and a $100,000 fine for the second count of tax evasion.

While Barry will weigh a number of factors in setting Cooke's sentence, and is not bound by the plea agreement reached by the attorneys, federal sentencing guidelines indicate that a prison term of about three years is likely, said Wendy White of the law firm of Shea and Gardiner, who is representing the Episcopal Church in the case.

Dressed in a blue skirt, white turtleneck and blue sweater with a pearl necklace, Cooke was accompanied to the courtroom by Cacheris and her other attorneys, but not by her husband, Nicholas T. Cooke II, a former priest. Ernst would not say whether there is any ongoing investigation into possible involvement in the embezzlement by Nicholas Cooke.

Cooke was treasurer for the Episcopal Church from November, 1986, until January, 1995. In her guilty plea, Cooke admitted that she stole church funds by writing checks on church accounts at First American Bank in Washington D.C., and its successor, First Union Bank, and depositing them in her own accounts at First American, First Union and Merrill Lynch bank in New Jersey. She also admitted writing checks from church accounts to pay her personal credit card bills and private school tuition bills for her children, and misusing her corporate American Express credit card by charging personal expenses.

Cooke said she filed a false tax return for 1993 by failing to report to the Internal Revenue Service more than $146,000 in taxes. Cooke reported an income of $178,192 for 1993, when she actually had an income of more than $489,000 because of the embezzled funds.

Presiding Bishop expresses relief

In a statement to the church, Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning said that he is "enormously relieved that we have reached this almost final stage in the process that began February 7, 1995, when the first signs of financial irregularity came to light." He noted, however, that the process continues in that the Episcopal Church has filed a civil suit against Cooke and her husband, Nicholas Cooke, and that sentencing is still several months away.

"In some profound way, however, we have already moved on," Browning said. "For nearly a year, I as your presiding bishop, along with other leaders of our church, have dealt with this in our heads and our hearts. We together have faced both the practical and the spiritual implications of such a massive betrayal."

Browning said he personally has "faced the difficult fact that this was ultimately my responsibility," but said that the church administration has "looked carefully at how it happened and took steps such that it can never happen again."

The church has "faced our pain and vulnerability," Browning said. "Then, the process of healing began. Our healing continues."

Mixed with his relief is "a deep sense of sorrow at the tragedy of Ellen Cooke," he said. "Please keep Ellen and her family in your prayers."

The vestry of St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Montclair, New Jersey, where Nicholas Cooke served as rector, also issued a statement calling the guilty plea "an important step towards achieving closure of an extremely painful saga." The vestry said that they would be praying for the Cookes.

Civil suit to recover funds

So far, the Episcopal Church has received a $1 million settlement from the Continental Casualty company, which bonded Cooke, and acquired title to two properties -- a house in Montclair and a farm in Virginia -- that the Cookes owned. The Montclair house has been sold for a net profit of about $280,000, and the farm is listed for sale. The church also attached a bank account belonging to the Cookes that contained $60,000, and recovered a $16,000 diamond necklace -- handed by Ernst to White on the day of Cooke's court appearance -- that Cooke purchased with church funds.

A special audit by the firm of Coopers and Lybrand, commissioned by the church, earlier indicated that Cooke took $2.2 million in a variety of ways over five years. White said that the civil suit filed by the Episcopal Church against the Cookes will seek any additional assets they may have or will have that could be used for restitution to the church.

"We expect to negotiate with her lawyers over this matter, and may take her deposition, and that of her husband, so that they have to reveal their assets under oath," White said.

Because of her guilty plea in the criminal case, Cooke "will not be able to argue that she did not take the money, although there might be some disagreement as to how much she took," White said. The prosecution indicated that a fuller accounting of the amount stolen would be presented at Cooke's sentencing.

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