Arlington Heights Montessori school may close; treasurer charged in Ponzi scheme

Longtime board treasurer has been charged with running Ponzi scheme

  • Robert C. Walberg of Arlington Heights is accused of operating a Ponzi scheme of which the Northwest Suburban Montessori School in the village is among more than 20 alleged victims. Walberg was the school's treasurer and investment adviser.

      Robert C. Walberg of Arlington Heights is accused of operating a Ponzi scheme of which the Northwest Suburban Montessori School in the village is among more than 20 alleged victims. Walberg was the school's treasurer and investment adviser. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 12/13/2019 6:33 PM

Board members of the 55-year-old Northwest Suburban Montessori School in Arlington Heights say the nonprofit's ability to survive even the current school year has been jeopardized by the loss of more than $600,000 to investment fraud.

Arlington Heights resident Robert C. Walberg, 58, who served as the school's board treasurer for about a decade, was charged in early October with theft by deception, wire fraud, securities violations and investment advisement fraud.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

According to court documents, Walberg operated a Ponzi scheme through which he gained control of more than $5.5 million from more than 20 investors, including the Montessori school.

He is further accused of using about $2 million of investors' funds for personal expenses, transferring about half that to accounts he and family members controlled and paying $733,000 in credit card bills.

Prosecutors allege Walberg funded improvements on the new home he bought in 2017, made payments on car loans and to his country club and his children's schools, and bought groceries with money taken from investors.

Walberg's attorney Christopher T. Grohman declined to comment on his client's behalf Friday.

Walberg pleaded not guilty to the charges last month. At the time of his arrest, his bail was set at $450,000, of which he had to pay 10% to be released from custody. His next court appearance is scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 18.

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John Helminski, who joined the Montessori school's board and became its president only this summer, said Walberg's mother-in-law had been principal of the school until last month. Walberg's wife was a teacher at the school about a decade ago.

Helminski added that Walberg's long service on the board derived from his having five kids go through the school, which serves children from 21 months old through kindergarten.

Walberg's primary role was as treasurer, but from that he gradually took on the role of investment adviser, Helminski said.

Court documents say that Walberg created a hedge fund called Chartwell Strategies in 2015 managed by Rolling Meadows-based Chartwell Advisory Group LLC, which Walberg also created.

The original purpose of the Montessori school's investments were to build an emergency fund to quickly acquire another building if it ever lost the lease to its current one, Helminski said. But with enrollment now down to 75 students, it has had to dip into those reserves to get through the downturn in its tuition revenues, he added.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

That's why the Ponzi scheme of which Walberg is accused has imperiled not just the school's emergency fund but its current operations, Helminski said.

A GoFundMe page has been set up in hopes of raising $75,000 to see the school through the current academic year. As of Friday afternoon, $10,360 had been raised.

"The main message is we want to focus on the kids," Helminski said. "(The school) has been a big part of the community for 55 years."

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