Ithaca, N.Y. — An office worker at Cornell who stole “at least” $365,124 from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology was given 90 days in jail under a plea agreement.

She had faced a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

Christie Talbot, 38, of Freeville, pleaded guilty to second-degree grand larceny, a felony.

“Talbot wrote over one hundred checks drawn on SPSP’s account that were deposited into her personal account,” prosecutors say in court documents.

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

Talbot agreed to pay back $365,124 to SPSP and $21,830 to the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance. She will also face five years of probation.

The thefts occurred from February 2007 through March 2010. Talbot also admitted to failing to pay sufficient income tax in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010.

“The defendant did deposit the funds in her CFCU Community Credit Union account,” court papers say.

Talbot was arrested on Oct. 18, 2012. Her charges had not been publicized — except for a brief mention in the local newspaper’s police blotter — until The Ithaca Voice conducted a review of Tompkins County Court records this week.

Talbot reached her plea deal in late June. As part of the deal, prosecutors also fined her $375.


Plot discovered: “Lately, nothing has been going smoothly! Lol”

Susan H. Schroeder was hired as the CFO of the SPSP society in 2012. (With 5,500 members, the society is devoted to producing and disseminating careers and knowledge in personality and social psychological science, according to its website.)

Schroeder began looking into the organization’s finances and asked Talbot, who unlike Schroeder worked in Ithaca, for help.

“Christie (Talbot) was asked on several occasions to send all financial files to me, and she was specifically told to provide the files going back four years for tax purposes,” Schroeder later told police. “She was very uncooperative.”

Schroeder would write again to demand the documents.

Schroeder said: “On July 2, her email response to my request was, ‘I have them and have started a box to ship to you. Unfortunately, I accidentally dropped a box with files, and have had to go through and sort them back out. Lately, nothing has been going smoothly! Lol.”

Christie Talbot told SPSP’s CFO, “Lately, nothing has been going smoothly! Lol.”
Christie Talbot told SPSP’s CFO, “Lately, nothing has been going smoothly! Lol.”

Schroeder, however, kept pressing. “Can you please send me the rest of the checking statements back to 2004?” she wrote to Talbot.

Talbot responded: “I will try and gather these over the weekend. I have misplaced a box and I have been searching for it …”

The box did eventually arrive. In it, Schroeder found a pile of loose cancelled checks. She continued digging and cross-referencing the information provided by Talbot with the official SPSP books.

She compiled a list of bank statements that didn’t quite pass the sniff test.

“I then reviewed the items for materiality and likelihood of being legitimate charges,” Schroeder said in court papers.

“The final result was a list of 98 questionable checks totaling over $370,000.”


A visit to Cornell, a confrontation, and a plea

Dr. Todd F. Heatherton, a member of SPSP’s executive committee, heard from Schroeder in October 2012.

Heatherton and a lawyer met Talbot at a Cornell building on Pine Tree Road shortly after 1 p.m. on Oct. 8, 2012.

Todd Heatherton helped unravel Christie Talbot’s theft. (Courtesy of Dartmouth, where Heatherton teaches.)
Todd Heatherton helped unravel Christie Talbot’s theft. (Courtesy of Dartmouth, where Heatherton teaches.)

When the attorney first asked Talbot about the office finances, she tried ducking the question.

“Attorney Devine then asked Christie (Talbot) if she had ever written out checks herself. Christie said no,” Heatherton said in court papers.

“Attorney Devine followed up by asking whether it was possible that she wrote checks to cash or to herself and ever deposited them in her personal account. At this point (Talbot) stated, ‘Do I need a lawyer?’”

The attorney told Talbot that he couldn’t answer that question, but that he and the SPSP wanted to know what happened to the money.

“(Talbot) replied that she was worried about saying anything that might incriminate her. She stated that for the sake of the kids she didn’t want to serve criminal time,” Heatherton said.

Then came the admission.

“Talbot then admitted that she had taken the blank signed checks and written them out to cash, to herself, or to another person … She stated that she hoped to pay everything back that she had taken.

The attorney asked Talbot about Professor David Dunning, who teaches in Cornell’s psychology department. Much of Dunning’s research focuses on eyewitness identification, including in criminal cases, according to his website.

“(Talbot) said he was totally innocent and didn’t know anything — and she felt especially badly about Dunning because he trusted her. She described feeling horribly guilty for a long time and that she had thought about confessing numerous times,” Heatherton would later recall to police.

Talbot said that she was facing bankruptcy. She said she didn’t have gambling or drug issues. She blamed what had happened on Kristin Tolchin, another worker who is facing civil charges in connection with the theft. Talbot admitted, however, that she was the one who had written the checks.

In an interview on Wednesday with The Ithaca Voice, professor Dunning confirmed that Talbot worked for him. He wouldn’t answer other questions.

When asked if it was true that Talbot had ripped off hundreds of thousands of dollars from SPSP, Dunning said, “I actually don’t know how much” was taken.

Back in 2012, Heatherton — the SPSP board member — asked Talbot repeatedly about Dunning’s role.

“When pressed again about Dunning and how he could not have known, (Talbot) described him as basically very busy and that he didn’t check up on her,” Heatherton said in court documents.

“She said she doesn’t know anything. She also expressed concerns about her current husband’s health and mentioned that he was unaware of her thefts.”

“We left the meeting and went to the police station in downtown Ithaca.”


Resolution?

Talbot was then charged. The case took several years to be adjudicated. Ray Schlather, a well-known Ithaca attorney, represented Talbot.

“Ms. Talbot had a tough life,” Schlather wrote in court documents asking for a reduced sentence, “…Talbot has serious and long-standing issues involving lack of self-esteem, financial stress and chronic personal crisis.”

“Most importantly, Ms. Talbot fully acknowledges that she has acted badly in this matter and is deeply ashamed.”

Though Talbot agrees in her plea deal to pay restitution, there are two small asterisks written in blue pen written on page three.

The restitution, the asterisks note, will be paid “as she is financially able.”

As of June 2014, Talbot had paid back $1,600, court documents show.

Michael J. Connor contributed reporting to this story.


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Jeff Stein

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