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Ex-official of charity is sent to jail

Prosecutors say she embezzled $115,000 in a year

Salt Lake Donated Dental Services operates on a $300,000 yearly budget. Between March 1999 and March 2000, executive director Rhonda Ruth Berg allegedly embezzled $115,000 of it.

Prosecutors say Berg fraudulently wrote and endorsed checks, set up a secret bank account for the laundered funds, used the nonprofit organization's charge account to buy herself and her daughter new home furnishings, and took the agency's computer equipment home for personal use.

Berg was sentenced Monday to two years in the Salt Lake County Jail on charges of attempted theft and attempted evidence tampering, both third-degree felonies.

Berg, 53, pleaded guilty in November to the charges, although she maintains the extent of the situation has been highly misrepresented.

"I do take responsibility for unwise decisions during a time of great pressure," Berg said Monday. "I've spent my life volunteering for the underprivileged. I'm not guilty of this massive accusation."

Berg maintains she took over the "dying nonprofit" and garnered more than $500,000 in donations while employed at the agency.

It was an extremely stressful time for Berg, defense attorney David Biggs said, which led her to do things she otherwise would not have done.

However, deputy district attorney Howard Lemcke said Berg had been fired previously from her position at the International Utah Visitors Council, another nonprofit organization, on similar allegations.

Berg countered that claim in court Monday, saying she had been let go for other, undisclosed reasons.

Salt Lake Donated Dental Services has been in Utah for the past 10 years. Its more than 150 volunteer dentists served more than 3,000 people last year who would have had no other access to dentistry.

The agency's founder, dentist Ralph Montgomery, said Monday he believes Berg's goal was to systematically skim money from the organization. "This isn't something that happens on the spur of the moment," Montgomery said. "She set out to deliberately loot our organization. She came very close to doing that."

However, the organization has recovered and is now in the "best position financially that we've been in for a long time," Montgomery said.

It isn't unusual for private, nonprofit organizations to fall victim to clever con artists, Lemcke said.

"Charities are vulnerable in this regard," he said. "You don't necessarily have people within the charitable mentality whose strength is putting together the whole business package that they need to."

When someone like Berg comes along and sells herself as the "ultimate office manager business person," Lemcke said the organizations hold them in high regard.

"A lot of these small charities are very vulnerable and very trusting," Lemcke said. "She's a wolf among sheep."