Ex-clerk admits stealing funds

More than $10,000 taken from county sheriff's office

Audit revealed scheme

Glen Burnie woman avoids jail, must make restitution

Anne Arundel

October 29, 2004|By Sarah Schaffer | Sarah Schaffer,SUN STAFF

A former Anne Arundel County Sheriff's Office clerk pleaded guilty yesterday to stealing more than $10,000 from the department over several years and received a suspended jail sentence.

Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Joseph P. Manck sentenced Debra Ellen Johnson, 37, of Glen Burnie to six months in jail but suspended that sentence in favor of three years of supervised probation.

Johnson must also complete 50 hours of community service and repay the money to the county, the judge said.

A married mother of two school-age children, Johnson faced up to 15 years in jail and a $25,000 fine, the maximum penalty for a felony theft conviction.

Johnson broke into tears yesterday while apologizing to the court, her family and the staff of the sheriff's office. "I made the wrong choice. ... I can truly say that I've learned from that mistake," she told the judge.

In May, Johnson was indicted by a grand jury on felony theft charges after an audit revealed the theft scheme, prosecutors said. Johnson turned herself in a few days after being served with a warrant.

Prosecutors said yesterday that Johnson was hired in 1997 as a civilian clerk to collect fees from parties that want to have sheriff's deputies serve lawsuit paperwork, and to turn over that money to the county's finance department.

After the audit revealed discrepancies between funds received and deposited, Johnson told investigators that she had never handled any cash from those seeking processing.

But other clerks and office staff were prepared to testify that they frequently accepted cash for such services while working for Johnson when she was out sick or on vacation, Assistant State's Attorney Michael Dunty said in court.

When confronted with that information in subsequent interviews with investigators, Johnson revealed what she had done, Dunty said.

"She admitted that she knew it was wrong. ... She has greatly embarrassed the sheriff's department," Dunty said.

John Gunning, Johnson's attorney, said that his client was a respected employee and that she took the money only because her husband was out of work and her family was in a financial crisis.

Before sentencing, Gunning asked the judge to grant Johnson probation before judgment with an order for restitution, saying that she would keep her "promise" to repay the county.

Johnson agreed yesterday to surrender her leave balance and retirement fund - about $3,300, or a third of the money owed - to help pay down her debt.

Kristin Riggin, a spokeswoman for the county State's Attorney's Office, said that prosecutors are satisfied with the judge's ruling because it was within sentencing guidelines.

"Based on the fact that it was a public corruption in a law enforcement agency, we felt that the defendant should have received consequences for her actions," Riggin said.

Sheriff George F. Johnson IV said yesterday that he is also happy with the outcome in the case.

"I think [Judge Manck] made a very fair sentence," Johnson said. "It's going to certainly make her think twice about doing this sort of thing in the future. ... and we're glad to put this behind us and move forward."

Just prior to the audit, the sheriff's office stopped accepting cash as payment for services.

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