John Dovidio spoke with The Ithaca Voice about SPSP's reaction to the $365K rip off. (Courtesy of the Harvard Business School)

​Ithaca, N.Y. — ​Leaders of an organization that a Tompkins County woman admitted stealing at least $365,000 from wanted a tougher jail sentence for her, one of them said Wednesday.

​The Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) was victim of the large theft by someone who worked for its former executive officer when the organization was based in Ithaca. The thefts took place, one check at a time, from 2007 through 2010.

​Christie Talbot, 38, of Freeville, pleaded guilty to second-degree grand larceny, a felony, for the crime. She was given 90 days in jail. The sentence could have been up to 15 years. She also agreed to make restitution to SPSP.

​John Dovidio, a psychology professor at Yale and former executive officer of SPSP,
said board members were divided about exactly how severe the punishment should be for Talbot. But, he said, they all wanted at least six months — twice what she received.

Christie Talbot admitted to stealing $365K while working for Cornell professor David Dunning, above. Dunning’s psychology research focuses on eyewitness identification during criminal trials. (Courtesy of Cornell’s website)
Christie Talbot admitted to stealing $365K while working for Cornell professor David Dunning, above. Dunning’s psychology research focuses on eyewitness identification during criminal trials. (Courtesy of Cornell’s website)

​“This wasn’t a one-time decision, a moment of weakness,” Dovidio said of the series of thefts. “It was done a hundred times over a long period of time. We felt the punishment should reflect that.”

Read Wednesday’s story: Woman working for Cornell prof. steals more than $365K from psychology society

​The organization also wanted full restitution to be one of the terms of a plea agreement, for two reasons: “As a reminder to her of what she’d done… and our members deserve every dollar back that they can get back.”

​What are the chances SPSP will ever see that money repaid in full?

​“Do the math,” Dovidio said. Looking at her average salary, and now a felony conviction, “She’d have to live (and work) over a hundred years to pay us back.”

​But he said the losses won’t jeopardize the health of the organization. They will prevent it from offering more program services to members, including graduate student grants to attend conferences, supporting greater diversity within the organization, and offering more opportunities for students to connect.

John Dovidio spoke with The Ithaca Voice about SPSP’s reaction to the $365K rip off. (Courtesy of the Harvard Business School)
John Dovidio spoke with The Ithaca Voice about SPSP’s reaction to the $365K rip off. (Courtesy of the Harvard Business School)

​“Financially, it’s not that it didn’t have a significant impact…Having that money would have allowed us to do many more things that we wished to do for our members,” Dovidio said.

​How could this have happened over such a long period without being noticed? How were the thefts discovered? And why was Talbot working in Ithaca for an organization now based in Washington, D.C.?

​Dovidio had answers for all of these questions.

​SPSP had been a very small operation, based at the campus of whichever faculty member was its executive officer. Dr. David Dunning, a psychology professor at Cornell, was executive officer while Talbot was working for him. So SPSP was based in Ithaca. When Dovidio became executive officer, the operation moved to Connecticut, where Yale is located. Within the past year, it finally secured a permanent home in D.C.

A portion of the court documents in the case.

​It’s now an organization with more than 6,000 members. More than half of them are psychology professors, most of the rest are graduate students, and a small number are advanced undergraduates in that field.

​“SPSP was a very small organization and had no money for a long time,” Dovidio said. “Then, with publication contracts for journals, income increased quite rapidly over a short period of time. … It was still being run like a small organization without all the checks and balances ….There was not sufficient oversight to detect it at that time.”

​He and his wife, Linda, who was an administrator for the organization, asked for an audit.

“They had not previously had audits of the books.” But the audit covered only the period after Talbot’s thefts had stopped, and so didn’t discover them.

​It was another measure toward more rigorous financial controls that finally brought the pattern to light. Dovidio said he asked the board to hire a chief financial officer.

When Susan H. Schroeder came aboard in that role in 2012, SPSP finally had someone “who had the skills to do a good internal investigation.” And she did. And Talbot is now a convicted felon.

​Dunning remains a member of SPSP but relinquished all leadership roles.

“I thought it was an appropriate decision on his part at the time,” Dovidio said.

Police had concluded there was no criminal activity on his part, Dovidio said.

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.