SOUTH BEND - In a case that has shocked the county, former South Bend Court Clerk Trisha Belcher, who embezzled $15,690 over the course of four years, was sentenced to pay $35 per month for 36 years, totaling $15,120, and 30 days of jail time. If she is too medically frail, her jail time will be substituted for community service.
According to South Bend Clerk/Treasurer Dee Roberts, Belcher worked for the city for five years, from 2007 to 2012. When her co-workers began to suspect that she was using drugs in May 2012, she was given a drug test, which she failed, and was put on administrative leave. With raised suspicions, Roberts then contacted the State Auditor’s office to report a potential misappropriation of funds.
The State Auditor’s investigation revealed that Belcher had stolen approximately $15,000 over the course of four years, from 2008 until she was placed on administrative leave in 2012. The audit report explains that duties at the court were not segregated and that Belcher alone was in charge of all receipting, depositing of funds, and making account adjustments. With this autonomy, Belcher was able to pocket cash payments unnoticed.
Upon notification of the misappropriation in December 2013, the city responded to the state that it would be seeking the recovery of the missing funds, Belcher’s wages ($28,000+) and the state’s investigation fees of $9,202 from the former court clerk.
Although Belcher was given a lightened sentence due to her medical frailty,” Roberts explained that she was not medically ill when she was employed by the city. The charges are “very much too lenient,” Roberts said.
In order to ensure that a situation of this sort doesn’t happen again, the city has segregated the job duties of the court clerk. “Everything in the court is now checked, doubled checked, and checked again,” Roberts explained, “which is very difficult in a small office, but we’re making it work.”
South Bend Chief of Police Dave Eastham was upset, if not furious, with the outcome of the case.
“I am very disappointed in the lack of justice in Mr. Burkes' "deal", Chief Eastham told the Herald. “The only deal given was a sweet deal for the defendant. No wonder Judge Sullivan was upset. Of twenty-seven counts, the defendant only had to plead to one count, 240 hours of community service and a payback of $35 a month, which would take almost forty years to pay off; plus never having to say, 'yes, I did it.' This deal sends a very clear message, and the message is, that crime does pay, at least in Pacific County. I believe that Mr. Burke owes the taxpayers a better explanation than, 'The jail is overcrowded or the trial would have been to expensive.' First off, the jail always has room for a felon, but if Mr,Burke would have charged more than one count of theft out of the twenty-seven available, the defendant would have been sent to prison; not our county jail. It also would not have gone to trial if Mr. Burke would have been doing the job of prosecutor and not acting as the defense attorney.”
South Bend City Councilwoman Karla Webber also was not satisfied with the outcome.
“This has been a long, expensive ordeal for the City and I am very disappointed at the outcome,” Webber said. “I do feel grateful to Judge Sullivan for questioning David Burke's lenient deal and taking the additional time to look into it. Like everyone else, I'm just stumped.”
Mark McClain, who is running for Pacific County Prosecutor, agreed with Judge Sullivan's views on the sentence, and was also dismayed about the light sentence and plea agreement.
"I share Judge Sullivan's comments and find it hard to believe justice is served by this plea bargain - the State Patrol's investigation took significantly longer than the 240 hours of community service offered as a punishment for this felony offense, an offense which both violated the public trust and caused havoc for the many citizens to paid their fines to the city," McClain said.
Pacific County Prosecuting Attorney David Burke explained that although Belcher pled down from first degree theft to theft in the second degree, “The difference in sentencing is not that great. . . the goal was to ensure that she had a felony in her record.”
A felony would ensure that she would not be able to handle money for an organization in the future.
Burke explained that further pursuing the Belcher case would have taken approximately two weeks of court time, costing money and time. Had the case gone to trial and ended in a conviction, Burke said, her jail time would have not been much more. It was a question of how to use the county’s limited resources and money for the optimum results.
“In ideal world, we would have held her responsible,” Burke continued. Due to budget cuts and less resources, “we have to be careful in where we go forward,” he said.