Former county employee sentenced to 30 months in prison for embezzling
A former Columbia County employee was sentenced to 30 months in prison Tuesday, July 10, for embezzling more than $650,000 in county funds during the course of her nearly 30-year employment.
Linda K. Hald, 70, was taken from a Columbia County courtroom in handcuffs Tuesday morning, following a sentencing hearing. She appeared in court earlier this year in March, where she pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree aggravated theft in a plea deal that saw 28 additional charges, including official misconduct, theft, and tampering with public records, dismissed.
Hald was arrested November 2016 after a supervisor in the Community Justice Department office, where Hald worked, noticed discrepancies in accounting and receipts.
Hald previously served as the office manager of the department's adult division.
Investigators determined cash was missing from an account linked to offenders on parole or probation, who would often pay fines at the office where Hald worked.
A county news release of the arrest and investigation indicated that Hald was suspected of taking cash paid for fees, but still properly credited the accounts of offenders and "all services were rendered appropriately."
Investigators found register receipts were destroyed and some records were falsified, to hide the missing money.
The cash issues went unnoticed until after Hald retired in June 2015, receiving full Public Employee Retirement System benefits.
A forensic accounting investigation was launched, at an expense of $70,461 to the county.
Columbia County made an insurance claim for the lost funds, and recovered roughly $468,000, according to county commissioners.
In addition to a prison sentence, Hald was ordered to pay $95,000 in compensatory fines and restitution to the county. She will be subject to two years of post-prison supervision after her stint in custody.
Prosecutor John Tseng, who worked the case in lieu of the Columbia County District Attorney's Office, said Hald was able to steal thousands during her tenure as a county employee, "due to her position and lack of systematic oversight."
"We recognize that Mrs. Hald has admitted to her guilt. ... She is 70 years old, no prior record and has some health issues that we're aware of," Tseng said. "She has made efforts to gather as much money as she could to pay back the county."
Tseng, speaking for the state, suggested Hald's time in prison would "help her reflect on the hurt she's caused in her community."
Hald's attorney, Michael Staropoli, said his client has been working with her husband to resolve the financial matters and pay back the county as best as possible.
"For that, as counsel has already noted, there deserves to be some recognition," Staropoli said.
County Commissioner Alex Tardif read a victim impact statement in court Tuesday, saying Hald eroded the county's trust. He urged the court to order a full repayment of the stolen money.
"Serving the public is a privilege," Tardif said, reading from a prepared statement. "When Columbia County commissioners realized that a long-term county employee was embezzling funds, we were shocked. Our first thoughts were 'how could this person, this trusted employee of 30 years, do this?' What kind of person can work in community justice – ironically an area that works to help make our community better – be so selfish as to steal public funds?"
Tardif said after the county filed a hefty insurance claim, county officials were warned that they could lose insurance coverage if they had additional claims.
"Even if insurance covered every penny of the damages, we feel strongly that Linda should re-pay every cent she took, plus out of pocket costs," Tardif suggested. "She should not be off the hook for repaying stolen funds simply because some insurance funds were paid. That would be an injustice. It would allow Linda and her family to continue to benefit financially from her crime."
Judge Grove said he agreed with everything Tardif said, opting to offer his own take on an appropriate sentence.
"For a 70-year-old woman who's never spent a day in jail, 30 months in prison is significant and appropriate," Grove said, echoing some of Tardif's comments, in which he said the theft eroded the public trust. "This certainly is an extreme case of betrayal to the community and your position as a member and a long term employee of the community corrections. It is most unfortunate that we find ourselves here today."