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Former ALS nonprofit leader going to prison for theft

| Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013, 12:15 p.m.

The former executive director of the Western Pennsylvania chapter of the ALS Association will serve 11½ to 23 months in jail for stealing from the group that supports those with Lou Gehrig's disease, a judge ruled on Tuesday.

Michael D. Bernarding, 35, once heralded by Pittsburgh Magazine and the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project, also will pay $102,000 in restitution to the nonprofit.

Bernarding in June pleaded guilty to one count of theft and three counts of misapplication of entrusted funds before Common Pleas Judge Edward J. Borkowski. He will serve his sentence at the Allegheny County Jail.

Investigators said they found 22 instances of Bernarding giving himself unapproved payments to inflate his salary, buy gift cards to restaurants and coffee shops, and pay for online classes at Harvard University Extension School.

“Knowing that we're going to have restitution and being able to put that back into the hands that need it is a great feeling,” said Merritt Holland Spier, the current executive director of the Millvale-based nonprofit. “It really was a very criminal act he did here.”

Daniel Konieczka, Bernarding's attorney, said his client wants to pay back the money as soon as possible.

“Michael worked very hard, was dedicated and had a few missteps,” Konieczka said.

Spier, who was hired in 2011 and never met Bernarding, said the association's board of directors fired Bernarding in April 2011 after they discovered a problem with payroll records and conducted an internal investigation.

Detectives with the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office arrested him at his Hazelwood home six months later.

“Because of (the board's) swift action, we as an organization never lost a single day of serving our patients,” Spier said.

According to the criminal complaint, Bernarding gave himself $38,000 in extra paychecks and bonuses, used an association credit card to buy gift cards to Starbucks, the Cheesecake Factory and Southwest Airlines, and made unauthorized charges of more than $2,600 to the nonprofit's account at the Rivers Club, Downtown. His thefts totaled more than $80,000, the complaint says.

Bernarding was a rising star in the nonprofit world. He was an associate partner of Pittsburgh Social Venture Partners. Pittsburgh Magazine and PUMP named him to its annual 40 Under 40 list in 2006.

He worked for seven years as executive director of the ALS Association, which helps people with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. The organization serves 31 counties in Pennsylvania and has an annual budget of about $1 million.

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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