Prison Charity Chief Charged with Fraud

 By DAVID B. CARUSO, Associated Press Writer 

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - For a quarter century, John Fidler was a lifeline for prison inmates. Now he could be joining them behind bars. 

  The longtime director of the Berks County Prison Society was indicted by a federal grand jury Tuesday on charges he misappropriated thousands of dollars by giving himself unapproved pay bonuses, then covering it up by falsifying records. If convicted, he could be sentenced to 250 years in prison and a $12.5 million fine. 

Prosecutors in Philadelphia said Fidler, 56, paid himself $383,000 in secret bonuses between 1997 and 2001, nearly doubling his salary at the society, which provides inmates with bail money and a wide range of social services. 

In what U.S. Attorney Patrick Meehan called "a systematic betrayal of public trust," Fidler gave the society's patrons, including the United Way, bogus records that overstated the pay of other employees and listed jobs that didn't exist, all in an attempt to conceal his compensation, the indictment said. 

He also submitted false information to the society's board of directors, which didn't learn how much Fidler was paying himself until January, prosecutors said. 

Fidler, who is charged with mail and wire fraud, remained free Wednesday but had agreed to surrender a later date, Meehan's office said. 

He did not return a telephone message left at his home. Fiddler's attorney, Paul M. Yatron, also did not return a phone message. 

The charges come after a nearly yearlong investigation that stunned Fidler's many supporters, who knew him as a dedicated advocate for inmates. 

"He was pretty much the institution behind the prison society," said Karen A. Rightmire, president of the United Way of Berks County. "He helped get it started. He has always been there. It's inexplicable." 

The society, founded in 1975, has evolved under Fidler's leadership into one of the largest sources of prisoner bail money in the county. 

It also developed a host of services for inmates, including reading programs for their children and counseling on how to reintegrate into society. 

An investigation began in January after a society employee questioned Fidler's pay. Fidler stepped down in February and the society fired him a month later.