You might call it a crime of opportunity. Or an overwhelming temptation.
In any case, Sekela Coles, the now-suspended Upper Darby parking director, is charged with theft, theft by unlawful taking, receiving stolen property, and related charges for allegedly raiding the money in the township’s new parking kiosks and keeping it for her own uses, District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said at a press conference Monday.
Stollsteimer said that she allegedly took more than $4,314 but began to return the money once she realized that the thefts might be discovered.
“We call that…consciousness of guilt,” said Stollsteimer.
Stollsteimer said Coles talked to detectives and admitted to the scheme where she had her assistant divert bags of money from the kiosks to a bank not used by the township to be counted and turned into cash.
“She has literally admitted to county detectives she stole coins from parking kiosks,” said Stollsteimer. He said Upper Darby gets about $1 million a year from its parking meters, kiosks, and tickets.
Stollsteimer said that one bag was so heavy with coins that the assistant, Nikita Barnes, had to ask her husband to help her carry it.
The couple are cooperating witnesses and are not being charged, he noted.
Stollsteimer attributed another issue–that of more than 18,000 parking tickets that were not turned over to the courts–to incompetence rather than criminality.
“This incompetency is what led to the investigation, which turned into a criminal investigation,” said Stollsteimer. But he did not believe he would be filing charges for failing to turn over the tickets for prosecution.
“There is no criminality here. Incompetence itself is not criminal,” he said.
Beth Stefanides, the Republican running against Stollsteimer this November, said the DA’s slow-walking of the case is a reason for voters to make a change.
“The lack of haste with which this manner has been handled speaks to the chaos and sheer lack of leadership occurring in our county’s legal system. County DA Jack Stollsteimer finally spoke publicly about this issue for the first time today – more than seven months since this issue has been going on – and, conveniently for DA Stollsteimer, just in time for the fall election.
“Delco deserves a leader who will speak up and take action when duty demands it – not just when it is electorally advantageous,” Stefanides added. “DA Stollsteimer is months late in addressing this issue. While he spent January through July in silence to protect Upper Darby, Democratic leadership, residents were left without due process, fairness, and justice.
“That’s wrong. I will take pride in actively leading and improving our county legal system so incidents like this never occur again.”
Coles, a former Upper Darby councilwoman, was put in charge of the parking enforcement bureau in 2020 when Mayor Barbarann Keffer, a Democrat, came into office. Keffer declined to comment.
Coles’ arrest followed months of turmoil in Upper Darby, with former chief administrative officer Vince Rongione resigning after the council fired him amid questions about the use of ARPA funds. And Keffer is not running for re-election after her arrest for DUI.
Stollsteimer said people who wanted to contest their tickets never got anything in the mail. After a township audit, officials rushed to send tickets to the courts, but he explained that most would be moot because there was only a 30-day window. So Upper Darby didn’t get parking ticket money for nearly two years.
Coles added the kiosks, Stollsteimer said. And he said that traditional parking meters make it hard to divert the coins, but the kiosks made it easy.
Almost from the moment the kiosks were implemented in November 2021, he said she began a scheme to steal what was in those machines. He said Coles used some of the money to treat her employees to gifts, parties, and lunches.
“At some point, she realized they were taking too much money,” said Stollsteimer. “It was going to potentially be discovered by the tax office. So, she had Ms. Barnes begin to repay some of the money to cover up the crime.”
Coles is also accused of obstruction of justice because she allegedly went into the township’s computer system and deleted eight tickets for family members so they would not have to pay them, said Stollsteimer.
He said Coles is also charged with official oppression because rental cars were charged $98 for parking tickets but $35 was the maximum amount. The probable cause statement noted Coles believed rental companies would pay additional money.
He said the investigation began last fall after officials learned about the parking tickets not being turned over to the courts. The mishandled coin issue came to light through that initial investigation.
Asked by DVJournal what penalty Coles is facing, Stollsteimer said he did not know but added the charges were felonies. DVJournal also asked him how much bail he would be requesting after Coles turns herself in and appears in court; Stollsteimer again could not say but added it was a “white collar crime,” and she is “not a flight risk.”
“All of us working in government have a sacred trust to act in the best interest of our communities. The defendant was entrusted with one of the basic functions of government –collecting parking meter money and depositing the cash,” Stollsteimer said. “However, rather than acting in the best interest of the citizens of Upper Darby, the defendant is alleged to have taken a portion of the parking meter cash and used it for the purchase of food, birthday cakes, office parties, and restaurant trips for the defendant and her staff. This kind of behavior erodes public trust and must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”