The former acting president of Southern Vermont College who apparently committed suicide after learning of embezzlement allegations against him cared deeply for the students and helped make the school a better place, college President Karen Gross said Friday.
Gross made the comments amid a civil complaint filed against 58-year-old James Beckwith, the person she put in charge of the school while she worked a year for the U.S Department of Education in Washington. Beckwith was found dead Wednesday. Investigators say his injuries were consistent with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Gross said Beckwith's six years of service helped change the face of the 550-student college in Bennington, contributed to the renovation of the dining hall, the construction of a health education center, and the restoration of the school's signature 100-year-old mansion. He also oversaw the conversion of a carriage house into an admissions and financial aid area.
She wouldn't comment about the investigation or what motivated Beckwith to allegedly have college officials write three checks for a total of $440,000 that he diverted to his own use.
"People are complicated. He had many strengths," Gross said.
She said it was a difficult time for the southwestern Vermont school located about 35 miles northeast of Albany, N.Y. But she stressed that "this college is financially stable."
"The key point is that despite the sad news and the allegations of financial malfeasance, the college is moving forward," Gross said. "What matters most is our students and their success. We are doing what we do well, which is enabling our students to become career ready, thoughtful and engaged leaders in their communities."
Federal court documents outline how Beckwith allegedly diverted three checks, for $100,000, $160,000 and $180,000 into accounts he controlled between November and last month. Of the total, he allegedly used $260,000 to pay down the mortgage on his and his wife's property just off Vermont Route 100 in the Green Mountains.
The same documents said an audit of the college's finances for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2012, found suspicious financial transactions involving purported vendor payments by Beckwith.
The documents do not say what might have motived Beckwith, a tax lawyer and former managing partner of a New York law firm, to have school officials write up the checks and claim they were to help pay expenses associated with a failed plan to build dormitory rooms at the college.
Beckwith served as chief financial officer and chief operating officer of the college since 2007. He was acting president while Gross was on a one-year leave to work as a senior policy adviser to the U.S. Department of Education. Gross returned to Bennington last month.
Beckwith resigned from the school earlier this month. At the time he told the Bennington Banner it was time for a change.
On Wednesday, federal prosecutors moved to seize the property he and his wife owned in the Vermont mountain town of Londonderry, alleging that Beckwith had embezzled $440,000 in just over two months to help pay down the mortgage on the property, valued by the town at $820,100.
Later that day, state police were called to Beckwith's after he was reported missing. He was found dead nearby.