Justice was served

Published 7:22 pm Wednesday, August 27, 2008

By Staff
The embezzlement case involving the Beaufort County Hospital Foundation has garnered much interest in recent weeks. If there is anything I have learned as your district attorney, it’s the adage that you can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time. You may still not agree with the outcome of the case after reading this editorial. However, I hope you will have a clearer understanding of the facts in the case and how our justice system operates.
It is not surprising that many of you distrust the actions of your elected officials. With all the corruption among public officials right here in our state, I can’t say that I blame you. Many of our state and national leaders have let us down. For six years, you have placed your trust in me. I have been and will continue to be accountable to you for the decisions I make on behalf of the state of North Carolina. You, the people, deserve no less.
I made it clear from the outset of this investigation that I would not personally handle the case. Not only was the suspect a member of my church, but I was a member of the Beaufort County Hospital Foundation. (Note: The Foundation and the Board of Trustees are two separate entities). I disclosed these conflicts immediately, and thereafter had no contact, not even a “hello,” with Ms. Jones. I assigned the case to Tom Anglim, my most-seasoned assistant prosecutor. Mr. Anglim is one of the most respected and experienced prosecutors in the state of North Carolina. Even though I delegated the case to Mr. Anglim, I own and accept responsibility for every decision made by Mr. Anglim and my other seven prosecutors.
From the beginning of the investigation, we received pressure to indict the case quickly. When we refused, rumors circulated that the embezzler would not be indicted at all. Rest assured, my office will never take action based on political pressure or otherwise unworthy accusations. Rather, the delay was because of several reasons. First, Detective Jerry Davis and Mr. Anglim spent countless hours assembling and then reviewing over a thousand pages of financial records, in addition to conducting numerous interviews required by such a detailed investigation. Secondly, the foundation decided to conduct a forensic audit. We had hoped to have that audit in hand prior to submitting the matter to the grand jury, since the amount in controversy affects the charges.
In North Carolina, if a person embezzles $100,000 or more, it is considered a Class C felony. If the amount is less than $100,000, it is a Class H felony. Since 1994, punishments in this state have been controlled by structured sentencing. In layman’s terms, the judge is bound by a sentencing chart. The two main factors are the offense class (for example, Class C) and the defendant’s prior criminal-record level. Punishment is more severe for those with prior criminal convictions.
Once these two factors are determined, the judge must look at the chart or grid, and then sentence the defendant within those guidelines. The most serious felony in this state is first-degree murder, a Class A felony. The least serious felony is a Class I, which consists of offenses such as forgery and felony possession of marijuana. A Class C felony carries mandatory prison time, while a Class H felony does not. Again, the sentence imposed upon a defendant is determined by North Carolina’s mandatory structured-sentencing guidelines. It is not determined by how “connected” a defendant is or whether a judge on any given day decides to be extra tough or compassionate. When you hear of a defendant sent to prison for stealing a DVD player from Wal-Mart, you can safely assume that the defendant had a significant prior criminal record or violated the conditions of probation.
During the early stages of the investigation, it appeared the amount embezzled was under $50,000. However, as time went on, the amount kept increasing (another reason we held off indicting the case). Ms. Jones was indicted for embezzlement in excess of $100,000, a Class C felony. Embezzlement occurs when a person entrusted with property converts that property for a purpose other than which it was intended. Ms. Jones converted in excess of $100,000. However, after indictment, it was determined that the amount she actually converted to her own personal use was $87,644.70. The other monies were moved to different accounts without authority, but remained with the foundation. The audit paid for by the foundation confirmed this conclusion. This audit was performed by experts in the field, but was not completed until after Ms. Jones had been indicted. So, since the total amount converted by Ms. Jones to her own use was less than $100,000, the appropriate charge was a Class H felony, and not the Class C felony. Ms. Jones pleaded guilty to the Class H felony and was sentenced within the structured-sentencing guidelines for a Class H felony.
In my opinion, justice was served in the Jones’ case. I support Mr. Anglim’s decision that it was in the best interests of the state to make restitution to the foundation as opposed to sending Ms. Jones to prison for a few months. Ms. Jones is now a convicted felon. She was sentenced to six to eight months in prison, suspended upon her successful completion of probation and paying restitution to the foundation. If Ms. Jones had received an active prison sentence, the foundation would not have recovered a single penny in restitution. (Please read the previous sentence again).
As a direct result of her guilty plea, Ms. Jones paid $43,200 in restitution to the court at the time of sentencing. By now, those funds should be on deposit with the foundation. In addition, she assigned her retirement benefits of $17,000 to the foundation, which should also be delivered to the foundation in short order. She is required to pay a minimum of $300 per month for the next five years until restitution is paid in full. If Ms. Jones violates any condition of probation, the judge will have the option of revoking her probation and activating her prison sentence. If that were to occur, the foundation would not receive any more of the unpaid restitution.
You may think Ms. Jones should have gone to prison even if it meant the foundation would not receive any restitution. In North Carolina, the district attorney represents the state of North Carolina, and does not maintain a lawyer-client relationship with crime victims. So, while my office does not represent the foundation per se, we do represent the state, which I believe includes every person who contributed $5 or more to the foundation’s annual Lights of Love campaign. As a former high school quarterback and current Monday-morning quarterback, I am confident it was in the best interests of the state to reimburse the foundation the money Ms. Jones embezzled in hopes that those bulbs on the hospital’s Christmas tree will continue to burn brightly.