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Ex-Bookkeeper Held in $1.2-Million Theft

Embezzlement: Woman is accused of stealing from a Jewish college and using part of the funds to finance films.

March 11, 2000|SYLVIA PAGAN WESTPHAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The former bookkeeper and fiscal administrator for the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles has been charged with embezzling more than $1 million from the institution--some of which was apparently used to finance the production of independent films.

Jean M. Thorbourn, 61, forged numerous checks between 1989 and 1997 by using a dean's signature stamp, misappropriating a total of $1.179 million, the district attorney's office said Friday.

In addition to making bank, credit card, car loan and mortgage payments with money from the college, Thorbourn wrote checks to herself, her daughter, her daughter-in-law and Electronomics, a company owned by her son, court documents revealed.

"Thorbourn had a lot of leeway in that position," said Gary Judge, a senior investigator with the district attorney's office, explaining why it took so long for college officials to notice the embezzlement. She was terminated in late 1997.

Thorbourn's attorney, Stephen Jones, declined to comment on the case. His client was arrested Thursday at an apartment in Sherman Oaks, and has been charged with 13 counts of forgery, one count of grand theft and four counts of filing false state tax returns from 1994 to 1997.

Thorbourn, who also used the names Jean Thorbourn Digiovanni and Joy Thorbourn, will be arraigned next week. She is being held on $1.179 million bail--the amount of money she allegedly stole.

"This experience, which has unfortunately become increasingly common in the contemporary business world, is terribly distressing to all of us in the college-institute family," said Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, president of the college, in a statement from New York. The college, whose headquarters are in Cincinnati, serves as a seminary for the Reform movement in Judaism.

A district attorney's report states that in September 1997, Thorbourn was asked by her supervisor, Rabbi Lewis Barth, about $381,130 that was due from USC. For the past 30 years, Hebrew Union College has provided faculty and has essentially been the de facto Jewish studies department for USC. Thorbourn said she had given that money as a loan to a friend.

In October, however, Thorbourn admitted to Barth she had used the USC money and other college funds, totaling $411,000, to make a film titled "Jamaica Beat."

That admission spurred an investigation by college officials, who determined that she had taken more than $1.1 million. The college informed the district attorney's office of the situation, and a case was opened in November 1997, said Judge, the district attorney's investigator.

One of the forgery counts concerns 51 checks written by Thorbourn to Electronomics, a company owned and operated by her son, Dennis Thorbourn. Checks issued from September 1991 through February 1997 amounted to $298,427, the district attorney's office said.

"The evidence is going to show that the money was being used for the production of movies," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Allan Fork. At least three movies were financed with the money, he said, including "Jamaica Beat," which was the only one completed. Jean Thorbourn's role in making the film was not clear, Fork said, beyond providing the money.

Court documents show, however, that Thorbourn owned and operated Blue Mountain Films Ltd., a Jamaican firm operating out of Los Angeles County. In the court documents, Thorbourn admitted transferring funds to Blue Mountain "to be used in connection with various films" and she agreed to repay $412,871 to the college.

The college did not reveal how much money Thorbourn has paid back. Zimmerman, however, said the institution has already recovered some of the money from its insurance carrier and is pursuing further litigation in hopes of recouping other funds.

College spokeswoman Jean Bloch Rosensaft said the annual operating budget for the institution--which has campuses in New York, Los Angeles, Cincinnati and Jerusalem--is about $22 million. The Los Angeles campus, near USC, has 673 students, out of the college's total enrollment of about 1,400.

Prosecutors said the direct involvement of family members in the misappropriations "remained a possibility," but declined to say if charges would be filed against Thorbourn's son, daughter or daughter-in-law.

Morton Owen Schapiro, dean of USC's College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, said he was distressed to learn of the Hebrew Union College's alleged embezzlement. Other than this incident, he said, "It's a very well-run institution. We've had a great partnership with HUC and will continue to have one."

*

Times education writer Kenneth R. Weiss and staff writer Ann L. Kim contributed to this story.

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