Judge Hall finds Carter guilty of theft from Starke Tourism

KNOX — Jennie Carter was found guilty of theft, a Class D felony, in Starke County Circuit Court Monday, Feb. 25. The charge stemmed from a $7,748.60 check Carter wrote in 2011 on the Starke County Tourism account and used the funds for personal expenses. Sentencing is scheduled at 10 a.m. March 25.
Judge Kim Hall announced the verdict following final comments from Prosecuting Attorney Nicholas Bourff and Carter’s attorney, Bryan Truitt, of Bertig and Associates in Valparaiso. Case law references had been provided to Judge Hall earlier in the day. The trial was continued to Monday after all testimony had been heard Feb. 20; and it became a question of whether the charge was theft, a felony, or conversion, a misdemeanor. Both charges address “unauthorized control over property.” The trial, originally slated as a jury trial, was changed to a bench trial during pretrial motions Feb. 19.
At the start of the trial, Bourff outlined events that led up to Carter’s arrest for theft. Truitt questioned the charge, suggesting it might be conversion based upon lack of criminal intent. Prior to opening comments, Truitt presented a document to Judge Hall stating that Carter admits to using the funds, but the money has been returned.
He opened the defense by explaining the reasons for Carter’s actions, saying she is a single mother supporting two daughters and a long-time resident of the area. She is employed by Drug and Tobacco Free Starke County at a salary of $19 per hour. DTFSC grant money was delayed in 2011, and Carter wasn’t getting paid.
Carter also had served on the Tourism tourism board (a volunteer position) and was treasurer in addition to her position as a coordinator with DTFSC. She was asked to leave the Tourism position in January 2012, but was still employed by DTFSC when the trial started.
The first witness for the prosecution was Indiana State Police Detective Chris Campione, who outlined the results of his investigation. On March 8, 2012 he interviewed Carter; the video and audio recording of that interview was played for the Court.
The second prosecution witness was Debbie Mix, executive director of Starke County Tourism and the Chamber of Commerce. Mix outlined the investigative steps taken by Tourism.
The charge is based on a check dated June 2, 2011, for $7748.60 supposedly written to the Indiana Department of Revenue. Carter had requested the funds to pay taxes. She stated during her testimony that she saw 12 letters from the State requesting payment that she believed to be authentic, and that she didn’t alter or produce any letters. However, Mix said that originally, Carter had said there were only three bills, not the 12 she stated in court Feb. 20.
Carter requested three signed checks on the Tourism account saying she wasn’t sure if the State would accept one check or exactly how the State might want the payment. The Tourism Council recognized the need to pay the taxes, and Mix signed the three blank Tourism checks because she had no reason to doubt the validity of the request.
One of the checks was made payable to a name similar to Indiana Department of Revenue for $7,748.60. Tourism stopped payment on the other two checks.
Carter then deposited the check in an account at Chase Bank in Valparaiso. Questions were raised about why the bank would accept a check to the State, however the name on the check was not specifically to the Indiana Department of Revenue. Carter said she could not recall the name she used to set the account up.
Carter and Truitt said that she didn’t initially intend to use the funds for personal expenses, however, with DTFSC grant funds delayed, she wasn’t getting paid, plus her ex-husband had stopped paying support as he was unemployed. When friends and relatives could no longer help, she experienced “serious financial hardship,” and used the money from the Tourism tax payment to pay bills.
“I was in jeopardy of losing my apartment and car. I knew I would eventually get paid from DTFSC,” she said.
Mix first noticed the check in July while reviewing the Tourism bank statement and started asking Carter for documentation on the payment. When asked repeatedly for information at the August and September board meetings, Carter said, “I’m getting it. I’ve been on the phone with them, and they will be reimbursing us.”
By October, tourism board members started increasing pressure for answers. After Thanksgiving, an unexplained deposit for $2,113.80 was made to the Tourism account at the First National Bank of Monterey. Mix asked for a copy of the deposit slip, and upon investigation, the bank’s video showed Carter making the deposit in cash. In the meantime, the treasurer of Tourism called the state and was told they hadn’t sent any bills or received any payments, and knew nothing about a reimbursement.
During the Tourism board meeting Jan. 10, 2012, Carter was requested to meet outside the meeting with board members Wieczorek and John Hensler. When they returned to the meeting, the board decided to write a letter of demand for $5,706.20, the $7748.60 plus the $71.40 from a previous transaction between Tourism and DTFSC, less the $2113.80 already received.
Carter has since paid back $5,708; however, the Tourism attorney and all its board members agreed that the matter should be referred to the Starke County Prosecuting Attorney.
The only witness called by the defense was Carter, who admitted writing the check for personal use, but intended to pay it back.
Campione and Mix both explained circumstances surrounding a previous questionable transaction for $7,140 between Tourism and DTFSC — however, that issue is not part of the theft charges.
Carter’s employment by both Tourism and DTFSC and being in a position allowing her control of funds for both agencies presented other concerns. Prior to the check involved in the theft charge, Carter was involved in other activities that, while maybe not illegal, were questionable. One was writing checks from one agency to the other, another was using the debit card of one agency to pay for items for the other agency.
In March 2011, Carter mistakenly wrote a check from Tourism to DTFSC for $7,140, which should only have been $71.40 for reimbursement of payroll taxes. Mix questioned the amount while checking Tourism’s May 2011 bank statement. To correct the error, Carter wrote a check from DTFSC back to Tourism for $7,068.60 ($7,140 less $71.40). There were no indications of any funds missing as a result of these transactions. When ask if this was typical, Mix replied, “The concept is not out of the ordinary when an employee’s salary is paid by more than one agency.”
Judge Hall questioned some of these activities, asking, “Who is overseeing the veracity (of Tourism and DTFSC transactions)? Has anyone at Drug-Free questioned what happened or investigated anything she’s done with them? Are there other red flags?” He also questioned why the checks were signed without them being filled out.
Judge Hall asked Carter, “Do you think it’s OK that you’re still employed by DTFSC with what you’ve admitted to doing – using their debit card for Tourism, writing checks between Tourism and DTFSC?” Carter did not reply.
The answer may lie in not questioning the actions of a long-term employee.
Truitt responded to some of these questions in closing arguments, “She has a past reputation for honesty, integrity and trust.”
Mix had commented earlier, “I had always trusted Jennie.”
It should be noted that Tourism and DTFSC have since implemented procedures to safeguard funds in the future. The Starke County Council and Commission also have addressed the issues by establishing a separate board to oversee distribution of the innkeeper’s tax and other funds to ensure they are properly used.