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Former MSBA administrator arraigned for theft

A former employee accused of stealing from the Maryland State Bar Association’s nonprofit arm pleaded not guilty Thursday.

Nicole Earl-Hernandez, the MSBA’s former director of administration, made her first appearance in Baltimore City Circuit Court. She was indicted on theft-scheme charges earlier this month.

The plea came about half an hour into proceedings in arraignment court. With his client somberly looking on, attorney James L. Rhodes entered the plea on behalf of Earl-Hernandez and consulted briefly at the bench with Baltimore City Assistant State’s Attorney Josh Felsen.

Trial was set for Aug. 12.

Rhodes, who runs the Law Offices of James Rhodes in Baltimore, declined to comment after the hearing. In the past, he has represented such high-profile clients as accused child-killer Adan Canela and police officer Gahiji Tshamba, who was acquitted of murder but found guilty of manslaughter for killing a Marine outside a bar; as well as Cheryl Forrest, who obtained a $180,000 jury verdict against a city officer in a wrongful arrest case.

An Aug. 8, 2012. police report lists the total amount embezzled from the Maryland Bar Foundation between May 2011 and July 2012 as $65,984.

The grand jury indictment handed down May 2 accused her of stealing an unspecified amount from the organization over the course of five years.

Earl-Hernandez worked for the MSBA for 12 years but was fired last summer, after MSBA Executive Director Paul V. Carlin became suspicious about withdrawals from the foundation’s funds.

Carlin, who was in the arraignment court early but not present when Earl-Hernandez’s case was called, declined Thursday to comment on the pending prosecution.

Earl-Hernandez had access to the bar foundation’s accounts while she worked there and is accused of writing checks to herself made out to cash, according to the police report. Earl-Hernandez made five different withdrawals, the largest being $37,000 in July 2011.

When Carlin detected discrepancies in the account, he contacted M&T Bank for detailed transactions on the accounts, according to the police report.

After Carlin asked Earl-Hernandez to explain the withdrawals, she left work early and never came back, the police report states.

The Maryland Bar Foundation is a nonprofit organization created in 1965 and raises funds to give to law group s across the state like the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland and the Public Justice Center.

The Bar Foundation collected $38,461 in revenue for the fiscal year ending in June 2011, an amount that is just over half of what Earl-Hernandez is reported to have stolen a year. The Bar Foundation’s total assets for the same fiscal year were listed as $331,829, according to GuideStar, an online database listing nonprofits’ financial records.

Since the theft was discovered, the foundation has put a number of safety measure in place and brought in accounting company Ellin & Tucker Chtd. to review its accounts.

The foundation also closed the three accounts that Earl-Hernandez had access to and opened two new ones. The bar association and foundation also changed the locks and keys to their shared Fayette Street offices.