SUNBURY — A sketchy paper trail led the treasurer of Congregation Beth-El to question invoices submitted by a Freeburg man on trial for bilking the synagogue out of an estimated $185,000.

David Jacobson, of Lewisburg, testified Tuesday in Northumberland County Court that after Shelly Kolbert was entrusted to serve as project manager for the $2.1 million construction of the new synagogue, Jacobson discovered that no one had made any effort to verify how Kolbert was spending the congregation’s money.

Jacobson was the first witness in Kolbert’s trial on three counts each of theft by deception and failure to make proper disposition of funds.

Questions about how much is missing from the congregation’s accounts have lingered. Original estimates in police documents suggested $126,000 disappeared after Kolbert became project manager in 2005. In a civil suit, the congregation alleged $484,000 was misappropriated.

In her opening statement, prosecutor Ann Targonski told the jury that Kolbert billed the synagogue project for work done on his Freeburg home.

In addition, he billed for work he said was performed by contractors, but then failed to pay them, Targonski said.

Kolbert’s defense attorney, Michael Groulx, of Williamsport, told the jury Kolbert had been “volunteered” to manage the projects by his employer, Weis Markets.

Former Weis CEO Norman Rich and Jonathan Weis, vice chairman and secretary, are members of Congregation Beth-El. Kolbert was trusted by Rich and Weis and worked on the renovations of the rabbi’s residence and supervised the demolition of the old synagogue.

Groulx said Kolbert purchased tools and materials for both projects and also paid contractors for work they performed, in order to keep costs down.

Jacobson testified when he became treasurer, he found that his predecessor had never questioned invoices sent by Kolbert. Kolbert would e-mail invoices for work on the residence and the synagogue on Thursday and checks would be drawn on Friday.

“As far as I knew, we were all volunteers,” Jacobson said. “A volunteer shouldn’t have been getting money.”

When Jacobson began to examine the synagogue’s books, he found there was originally about $800,000 in the capital account but only about $150,000 was left.

He was told Kolbert had “pre-bought” construction materials, but he could find no documentation of the purchases. Jacobson said he began to ask questions and no one in authority in the congregation could provide answers. He also began to receive calls from vendors and contractors who had not been paid.

At one point, Jacobson was told Kolbert was paying contractors cash to save the congregation money. The unanswered questions “made me feel uneasy,” he said.

When he examined the check register, he found that Kolbert had received checks totaling approximately $185,000.

“My eyeballs nearly popped out,” he said.

The checks were mostly for small amounts, ranging from $500 to $3,000, over a two-year period.

When Jacobson asked Rich and Weis about it, neither man was aware that Kolbert had received so much money, Jacobson said.

Questionable paperwork

Jacobson met five or six times with Kolbert, trying to reconcile the checks with invoices, but he testified that Kolbert produced very few invoices or receipts and most didn’t correspond to invoices he had submitted.

When asked for time sheets to verify employment, Kolbert produced a number of time sheets that Jacobson described as suspect. They showed different pay rates on different days, no lunch breaks and appeared too clean.

When he requested Internal Revenue Service documents for independent contractors, Kolbert was unable to produce any for anyone other than himself, and his was in the name Shelley Robert Hayman, rather than Shelley Robert Kolbert.

The work on the rabbi’s residence cost between $70,000 and $80,000, Jacobson said, which included $20,000 to $30,000 paid to Kolbert.

Under cross-examination by Groulx, Jacobson said there was no budget for either project when he became treasurer. The synagogue construction, initially estimated at $850,000, eventually cost about $2.1 million.

Jacobson admitted he had no expertise in construction, and when Groulx asked him about the invoices Kolbert had submitted for cleaning bricks at his Freeburg residence, he said he had no idea how much it would cost.

The final straw, Jacobson said, was when David Gill, an architect on the project, told him that he had given $56,000 to Kolbert.

“That’s when we went to the police,” Jacobson said.

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