By Jason Schock
The sentence handed down to a former village clerk caught with both hands — and some white-out — in the community cookie jar was light in retributive justice, but heavy in the restorative kind.
First District Court Judge Daniel E. Bryan Jr. last week placed Jennifer L. Stutheit, 32, a former Village of Dawson Clerk who altered more than 20 checks and used village funds to pay personal bills, bilking the locals out of tens of thousands of dollars, on three years of probation and ordered her to perform 100 hours of community service. For a Class III Felony, which is what Stutheit copped to in March by pleading guilty to second degree forgery, that’s a love tap on the wrist. Such felonies in the State of Nebraska can carry four years imprisonment or a $25,000 fine – or both.
But what the Court spared in hide, it’s seeking from the transgressor’s pocketbook. On June 15, the first $500 monthly payment comes due. That’s the first of more than 50 such installments, or whenever restitution of $24,911.29 is repaid the taxpayers of Dawson, plus about $1,300 in probation fees and Court costs. Maintaining the Court’s mandated pay schedule will leave the former clerk indebted into the latter half of the 2020 calendar year.
But what if that Court-ordered payment plan isn’t met? Well, prosecutors could ask for revocation of Stutheit’s probation. Though, historically, the State has not fared well in trying to revoke an offender’s probation for failing to make restitution payments. Nebraska law states plainly that “A person may not be denied probation due to his or her financial resources or ability or inability to pay restitution,” and “probation may not be revoked unless noncompliance with the restitution order is attributable to an intentional refusal to obey the order or a failure to make a good faith effort to comply with the order.”
Furthermore, in the future, if the Court finds that “the circumstances upon which it based the amount and method of payment ordered no longer exist or that it otherwise would be unjust to require payment or other restitution as imposed, the Court may adjust or waive payment of the unpaid portion thereof or other restitution or modify the time or method of making restitution.”
In other words, prosecutors would have to try and prove the unprovable, because while they may have access to facts, they do not have access inside the minds of others.
Determining what is and what is not “intentional” or a “good faith effort” is often too fuzzy a scene for Lady Justice’s compromised vision. In a 2014 survey of Nebraska’s district judges, several respondents indicated they rarely include restitution orders because of the subjective statutory language requiring them to consider the defendant’s ability to pay. The Office of Probation Administration that same year reported 36 percent of restitution orders were paid in full, 34 percent were partially paid and 30 percent remained completely unpaid.
But what Stutheit owes the State pales in comparison to what she owes the Village of Dawson,
was originally charged with six felony forgery counts in Richardson County District Court, but now faces just one after reaching an agreement with the County Attorney’s Office.
Jennifer L. Stutheit, 32, of Humboldt, last Tuesday pled guilty to second degree forgery, a Class III Felony, and in exchange prosecutors dropped four similar counts, as well as a fifth, second degree forgery, a Class IV Felony. She will appear back in Court May 3 for sentencing.
On the surface, it would appear Stutheit received the deal of a lifetime, as a Nebraska Auditor of Public Accounts report alleged the former Village employee between Oct. 1, 2013 and April 20, 2015 used public funds as her personal ATM account, by racking up $27,798.50 in total fraudulent charges.
Though nothing is official until the judge hands down a sentence, Assistant Richardson County Attorney Zach Blackman said terms of the agreement include repayment of more than $25,000 to the Village of Dawson. Stutheit allegedly signed a confession dated April 21, 2015, admitting to altering bank statements and using Village funds to pay for her personal NPPD bills. She was fired from the position last spring.
Village Board Chair Bill Koch said Monday he was “glad they’re going after restitution,” but that the Village of Dawson incurred a $15,000 bill from the APA for conducting the audit, thus is out about $40,000 from the ordeal.
“I think the county’s judicial system should’ve done more for us,” he said. “We were victimized and we’re not really satisfied with how the system handled this.”
Koch said he will serve out the remaining two years of his term, but does not plan to run for the office again.
Other members of the Village Board during the audit period included Charles Laux, Roger Goos, Phil Fisher, Jim Nincehelser and Brian Johnson.
In its report, the APA “identified a significant number of financial transactions from the Village that are highly questionable and could be fraudulent,” including:
– 21unauthorized payments totaling $26,611.74 to the former Clerk, who “appears to have altered the copies of the checks included on the bank statements in an effort to conceal that these checks were made payable to her.”
-Three personal electricity payments totaling $832.26 to NPPD.
-$100 in water deposits not deposited in the Village account.
-A $154.50 money order not paid to a vendor.
The APA report also had a harsh assessment for the Village Board, noting “the Village’s control environment was not conducive to fair and complete financial statements.”
The Board, according to the Auditor, “failed to monitor properly the financial activity of the Village to ensure the accuracy and completeness of its financial records, failed to maintain adequate supporting documentation for a number of transactions,” making $66,746.71 in payments with no documentation or inadequate documentation to support the expense, failed to comply with the Record Management Act and Open Meetings Act.
The Auditor’s Office recommend the Board implement proper monitoring and controls over the Village’s finances, including the following:
•Performing a periodic review of the Village’s accounting records compared to its bank statements to ensure their agreement and that there are no unauthorized uses of Village funds.
•Conducting an adequate review of the documentation supporting all claims presented to the Board for approval.
•Ensuring all claims against the Village are presented properly to the Board for approval by comparing the claims presented to the actual bank statements.
•Implementing procedures to ensure all amounts received from residents are properly deposited to the Village’s bank accounts.
•Ensuring all claims are properly paid by warrant, as required
•Determining whether a petty cash fund is needed and, if so, officially approving the amount in a Board meeting and implementing procedures to review the documentation to support purchases made from the fund.
Janis Richardson was appointed Clerk in June 2015 and the necessary changes have been implemented, Koch said. The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office is not investigating the Village, contrary to various reports.
“Please be assured that we are working towards making the corrections and implementing any and all changes outlined in your draft attestation,” they replied to the Auditor’s Office in a statement.
By Jason Schock