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Former Pittsburgh area 33rd Degree Masonic official accused of taking money

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Former Masonic official accused of taking money

By Tom Jewell
Saturday, March 5, 2005

A Masonic lodge in Ross is recovering financially after a member was accused of stealing nearly $100,000 from a charity fund and using the money to pay for a condominium in Florida and other personal expenses.

William Sturm, 71, of McMurray, assistant secretary at the Gourgas Lodge of Perfection for 25 years until his retirement last summer, is accused of forging the name of a fellow Masonic official 49 times between October 2000 and July 2003 to take $98,997 from the lodge's "hospitalier account."

Sturm, who waived a preliminary hearing Wednesday before West View District Judge Richard Opiela on a charge of theft and 49 counts of forgery, could not be reached for comment Friday.

The account was set up years ago as a relief fund for Masonic members who had fallen on hard times so they could buy items such as hospital beds and wheelchairs, said Tom Sturgeon, an active member of the Supreme Council in the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite and a former Allegheny County police superintendent. Masons throughout the area contribute to the hospitalier account during annual fund-raisers.

"There should have been some better record-keeping in place, and now there is," Sturgeon said. "We now have better accounting systems, with monthly financial reports and no more secrets."

Sturm, a 33rd-degree Mason, the highest level a member can attain, has said he intends to repay the money, according to Sturgeon and court documents. As the overall financial officer for the lodge, Sturm was paid about $45,000 a year, Sturgeon said.

Sturm is accused of using the account to make checks payable to himself and to pay for his condominium in St. Petersburg, Fla; tax, credit card and utility bills; and other personal expenses, court documents say. He also is accused of giving about $21,000 to two unnamed people through the years, according to court documents.

Sturgeon contacted detectives last summer after fellow Masonic officials said they could not get straight answers from Sturm about the account.

"They began to question Sturm more and more, and Sturm would give excuses that it was a confidential fund and he could not divulge the information," Lynn Havelka, a detective with the Allegheny County District Attorney's office, said.

Contending that the inquiries had become a "territorial thing," Sturm announced he was retiring, and in March 2004, he handed over the hospitalier checkbook with a balance of $877.

Officials found three boxes of unopened audit reports and years of unopened bank account statements in his office, according to court documents.

"The facts are that very little relief is given to people using this fund -- we've probably had four or five requests in the last year totaling $1,500 to $2,000," Sturgeon said. "We have 7,000 to 8,000 members in the area, and many of them contribute to the annual appeal."

Sturm later told investigators that "he knows it was a stupid thing, and he did it because it was a secret account and no one would find out about it" because recipients were to remain anonymous, court document say.

"(Sturm) stated he could have used his own money to pay for the condo, but he figured, 'Why not pay for it with the Masonic money?'" according to court documents.

Tom Jewell can be reached at tjewell@tribweb.com or (412) 380-8516

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