South Charlotte

Matthews Playhouse overcomes adversity

When June Bayless stepped out of the courtroom, she had bittersweet resolution. A dark chapter in the history of her organization had ended.

That May 19 morning this year, the former treasurer of Matthews Playhouse, John Hurst, 51, entered a guilty plea for multiple charges of embezzlement.

According to public records, Hurst was charged with embezzling about $300,000 from Matthews Playhouse over a seven-year period ending in summer 2009. Hurst had been treasurer for nearly a decade.

Now, Bayless says, the community institution is rebuilding.

Bayless founded Matthews Playhouse in 1995.

The money it gets from the town of Matthews' tourism fund covers the rent for the Matthews Community Center on McDowell Street, but not much else.

The Matthews Playhouse board decided to seek "operating support" from the Arts & Science Council, which would provide general funding annually. That required an audit costing $8,000-$10,000, Bayless said.

Bayless said the organization started doing online banking in June 2009 and then hired a bookkeeper. It didn't take long for the bookkeeper to find inconsistencies, she said.

Bayless asked Hurst to come to a meeting with the executive board. The board members were dumbfounded by what they saw, Bayless said. Board members quickly cut Hurst off financially and confronted him.

Hurst had been involved with Matthews Playhouse since its inception.

Playhouse officials and Matthews police announced in October 2009 that a large amount of money was missing from the organization's account.

Matthews police and the State Bureau of Investigation conducted a nine-month investigation, which ended with Hurst's arrest last June.

On May 19, Hurst was sentenced to 12-16 months in jail and 60 months of supervised probation afterward.

Hurst has been ordered to repay Matthews Playhouse more than $232,000. He also was ordered to pay more than $30,000 in court costs and fines.

Hurst's family could not be reached for comment.

The board of directors now has a new system for handling the playhouse's finances. At least three board members must see every check and bill.

Board president and attorney Howard Labiner said once they found the leaky pipe in the financial system, the playhouse has been able to increase its offerings.

It can spend more money per production, build larger sets, hire orchestras, invite guest speakers to classes and do a couple of productions that in the past might have been too expensive to get the rights to.

"If there's a silver lining," that's it, said Labiner.