An agency that has helped thousands of women and children cope with the trauma of sexual abuse is suddenly facing its own crisis.

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People Against Rape is struggling for survival after financial irregularities cost the agency $300,000 worth of grant money, board members said Tuesday.

The agency lost the grants after learning that $60,000 to $80,000 worth of bills that had never been paid were submitted for reimbursement. Board members blame a former employee, who resigned and left the state after being confronted with irregularities.

No criminal charges have been filed, and an investigation can’t start until an audit is completed. That could take a while because the books are such a mess, board President Michael Roach said at a press conference Tuesday.

“I will tell you as president, if there is $5 we can prove somebody stole, that person is going to jail,” said Roach, who also is a lieutenant with the Moncks Corner Police Department.

He was joined by Treasurer Vickey Cornelison-Grant, a business manager for the National Crime Victims Research Center at the Medical University of South Carolina, and Secretary Von Bakanic, associate sociology professor at the College of Charleston.

The nonprofit agency treats about 1,000 victims of sexual abuse a year. The board had to lay off eight of its 10 employees Friday and is scrambling to come up with money to keep the phone lines open, the board members said.

“This is not a story about who may or may not have stolen funds,” Roach said. “It’s a story about PAR desperately seeking to continue to provide valuable services to victims of sexual assault.”

Cornelison-Grant said she became suspicious there might be some problems shortly after she became treasurer in January 2011. The check register didn’t make sense to her, and receipts didn’t look right.

“I could not make heads or tails of it,” she said.

She asked the former employee, who had been working for the agency for several years, for a meeting in February 2011. That was the last they saw of her. She never returned to the office, the board members said.

Even so, nobody knew the extent of the problem until this year, when they learned that bills, including the rent and federal taxes, had not been paid. They discovered that checks had been written for taxes and the rent and then the expenses submitted to grant providers for reimbursement, even though the bills had not been paid.

The agency had never received late notices from the IRS because the notices were mailed to a payroll agency that was no longer being used, Cornelison-Grant said. They never got late notices from the landlord because he had lost his bookkeeper and didn’t know he had not been paid, she said.

They’re still trying to figure out exactly what happened.

“It’s been a long process, because it’s been in such disarray,” Cornelison-Grant said. “Like the layers of an onion, we just keep peeling things back.”

Roach said he tracked down the former employee in Florida, where she had moved. She denied any wrongdoing, he said.

Once board members figured out the agency had been getting money for bills that had not been paid, they contacted the grant providers, which included the S.C. Department of Public Safety and the Department of Health and Environmental Control. They were told grants would be suspended until the agency could account for everything.

Meanwhile, People Against Rape is renewing its call for donations and volunteers. Seven of the laid-off workers have continued to come in without pay, even though the agency owes them for six weeks, Roach said.

“To a person, they were more concerned about their clients than the money,” he said. “But nobody can continue all the work they do for free.”

Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553 or