Trial Set for Women Accused of Bilking $700K from Pa. Department

A mother-daughter team accused of stealing more than $700,000 in bingo, pull-tab and carnival proceeds from a Swoyersville volunteer fire department will stand trial this week.

Catherine Drago, 83, and her daughter Carol Gamble, 52, — who prosecutors say held exclusive control over the fire company’s finances — face trial on theft and related charges.

They were first charged in December 2008 and, since then, many questions have lingered over financial practices of the now-defunct department, Swoyersville Volunteer Hose Co. No. 1.

“I think the truth should come out,” said Swoyersville Councilman Christopher Concert. “If they didn’t steal the money, how do you not realize $700,000 is missing? It’s not a little mix-up.”

Jury selection was held in the case on Tuesday and opening statements are slated to begin this morning before Luzerne County Judge Lesa Gelb.

Drago was the treasurer of the fire company. Gamble was president.

After their arrests, Swoyersville ceased providing financial support to the fire company because “there were a lot of questions,” Concert said.

The fire company remained active for years, but borough council voted in December to ask Luzerne County 911 to stop dispatching the station to emergencies in the borough.

Swoyersville Volunteer Hose Co. No. 1, one of three fire companies in town, was responsible for covering one-third of the borough, but had started to frequently ignore calls, Concert said. Members also refused to answer questions or come to borough council meetings, while storing their fire truck in West Wyoming, he said.

“We, as a borough council, put them out of business a couple months ago,” Concert said. “To us, they no longer exist.”

The alleged thefts by Drago and Gamble “was the start of the downfall,” Concert said.

“It was a domino effect. There was a lot of questions to be answered and nobody wanted to answer,” Concert said.

The state Bureau of Charitable Organizations, a division of the state Department of State, initiated the investigation into the fire company in December 2005, as part of a routine check to determine if the fire company was exempt from registering as a charity.

According to an audit by the bureau, $734,748 of the company’s income generated between January 2004 and November 2007 went unaccounted for.

Gamble and Drago controlled the proceeds of the company’s bingo and pull-tab games and fair admission since at least 2001, prosecutors say. No one else from the company was allowed to tally, bundle, transport or otherwise handle the money, prosecutors say.

At the time charges were filed, prosecutors said a search of Drago’s home in Forty Fort revealed evidence of her penchant for gambling. At Drago’s home, investigators found casino courtesy cards from Bally’s, Trump, Claridge, the Tropicana, Hilton, Showboat, Sands and Caesars Atlantic City, arrest papers say. Additionally, arrest papers say a financial analysis determined Gamble, of Exeter Township, was spending well beyond her means.

Attorney Joseph Sklarosky Sr. is representing Drago, while attorney William Ruzzo is representing Gamble.

570-821-2055, @cvbobkal


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