WICHITA — The former public works director for a south-central Kansas county has been sentenced to 14 months in prison for thefts that a federal judge said violated the public trust.
Steven E. Collier, 49, appeared crestfallen Tuesday as U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren not only rejected his plea for leniency, but imposed a longer sentence than the one-year imprisonment the government had recommended. He was also ordered to pay more than $116,000 in restitution and serve three years of probation after his release.
“He was in a position of trust — not just to a business, but to the citizens at large of Barber County,” Melgren said
Melgren also noted that he was not obligated to follow the government recommendation.
For the court to give probation would be like saying “the punishment for theft is to give it back,” the judge said.
The defense lost its argument that the thefts were an abhorrent occurrence in an otherwise law-abiding life. The judge also rejected defense claims that head injury in a traffic accident years ago was responsible for his mental problems that caused him to steal.
And Melgren gave little, if any, weight to Colliers’ testimony at sentencing that he stole equipment from Barber County to pay for a so-called toxic affair and with that relationship over, he needs to remain free to provide for his disabled wife and repay taxpayers.
“This is an offense in which a public employee — who was a department head — deceived his employers, deceived the public,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Allan Metzger argued in court.
Metzger told the judge that the sentence of probation that Collier sought would provide no deterrence for another director of a government department not to steal — someone who might be tempted to risk probation for $116,000.
Collier, who is now working as a pipeline operator for Enogex in Oklahoma City, pleaded guilty in March to two counts of theft from a Barber County program receiving federal funds and agreed to pay $116,310 in restitution. In return, prosecutors plan to drop nine counts in the indictment.
He apologized to the court and to the citizens of Barber County in a courtroom statement.
“I have to live with this the rest of my life,” Collier said. “It is not something I have ever done before.”
Barber County Commissioner Paul Harbaugh told the court Tuesday that Collier manipulated other county employees into helping him by telling them they would be fired. He said Collier “eliminated” subordinates so he could hire others that he could more easily manipulate. He urged the judge to make Collier pay back the amount he stole from the county.
“Mr. Collier is a con artist — he used people,” Harbaugh said, adding the defendant was now trying to con the court.
Collier admitted in his plea agreement that he submitted a forged invoice in 2010 falsely representing he paid $28,350 for steel beams for the county. Instead he used the money to buy a bulldozer for his personal use, then sold it and put the money from the sale into the account of his family owned business. He also admitted he sold a tractor for $20,000 and kept the money.