Penni Porter, convicted in an embezzlement case, could spend 30 days in jail if she decides not to help officials sort out financial records.
Plagued by personal financial trouble, Baldwin's former city clerk turned to city accounts to "borrow" money, her attorney told a judge before Penni Porter was sentenced Wednesday.
Porter, 41, was placed on two years probation and still faces a possible 30-day jail term.
She didn't make any statements during the hearing that shed light on why she embezzled an estimated $20,000 from the city. However her attorney, David Brown, said Porter was trying to financially help her two sons. At the same time, Brown said, Porter was dealing with a "morass" in Baldwin's accounting and record-keeping system.
"She worked phenomenally hard and long hours" to bring the city's records into control, he said.
"If this matter had gone to trial, I believe the testimony would show it was a mess," Brown said about the city's financial record system.
Porter avoided a trial by pleading guilty Nov. 25 to two counts of misusing public funds and one count of making a false writing, all felonies.
Brown objected to a suggestion by Baldwin City Attorney Bob Bezek, who sent District Judge Michael Malone a letter asking that Porter be required to help the city sort out the botched records left in the wake of her embezzlement. Forcing her to do so potentially could arm the city in a civil suit, Brown said.
Malone said he couldn't force Porter to help the city, but instead gave her a 30-day jail sentence and then suspended it, pending a March 26 hearing. At that hearing, Brown and prosecutor Marlon Williams will discuss restitution plans. Malone also said he'll decide whether the jail term should go into effect, depending on whether Porter can reach an agreement with city officials.
Brown also disagreed with Williams' request for restitution of almost $21,000. That amount also included about $1,500 in city money allegedly used by Tim and Brad Ellis, Porter's adult sons. Both of them also have been charged in connection with the case.
Brown said his client's original plea agreement centered on restitution amounts up to the $19,300 Porter allegedly took. The actual amount of Porter's restitution, he said, should hinge on whether an insurance company covers a majority of the loss. If so, Brown said, Porter should have to pay only the amount not covered by the insurance or bonding company.
Malone ordered Porter to pay the full amount, whether it's to the city or to another party. Who gets what amount, and when, will be discussed at the March 26 hearing.
Malone also ordered Porter to perform 200 hours of community service and is forbidding her to work for any government. He sentenced her to a two-year probation program, but she could face 10 months in prison if she violates probation rules.
Porter is, in effect, unemployed. She provides day care to her son's child in return for room and board, Brown said.
Taxpayers are victims
Baldwin City Administrator Larry Paine, who took the position after Porter's June firing, told the court that Porter stole not only from the city government but Baldwin taxpayers, as well.
Paine noted that city officials understand sentencing guidelines don't call for a prison term in the case, but they don't necessarily agree.
The embezzlement left city records in such a shambles, he said, that 1998 accounts are "totally useless." Paine said the city has spent more than $40,000 on accountants and auditors to correct the mess.
"We do have, and will continue to have, more losses related to this," he said.
Williams said Porter had three misdemeanor convictions for writing bad checks in the 1980s in Douglas County.
Bezek, reached at his Ottawa law office later Wednesday, said the blame for the disarray falls on Porter's shoulder.
"Part of the embezzlement scheme was to corrupt the books so it wasn't easy to discover," Bezek said. "To me, it's unfortunate that somebody who admits to stealing from the city turns around and says they were working hard on the city books. Those are the very books you're corrupting.
"It bothers me that she had so many opportunities to do the right thing and chose to do the wrong thing," he said.
Porter's sons have also been charged. Brad Ellis, 20, will be tried on two charges of theft and two charges of criminal use of a financial card on Feb. 8. Tim Ellis, 23, will be tried on five counts of criminal use of a financial card on Feb. 1.
-- Chris Koger's phone message number is 832-7126. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.