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The Nevada Appeal
CHRISTY LATTIN, firstname.lastname@example.org
October 23, 2007, 12:05 AM
Former Churchill County School Board President Debbie Getto Smith received prison time Monday afternoon when she was sentenced for embezzling from an elderly client of her bookkeeping business during a seven-year period.
Judge Peter Breen, a senior district court judge brought in for the sentencing, sentenced Smith to 12-48 months for each of the two counts of embezzlement to be served concurrently. An elderly enhancement for each count doubles the sentence, essentially making it 24-96 months.
Breen also ordered Smith to pay restitution of $283,937.48 to Joanna Hibbert Ross of Ross Investment Co.
The criminal complaint alleged that between Nov. 2, 1999, and Dec. 8, 2006, Smith used an Advanta credit card belonging to Ross. According to the police report, Smith paid $10,723 of the charges and used Ross’ bank accounts to send payments for the remaining charges. She turned herself in at the Churchill County Jail May 4 on a warrant. She immediately posted $10,000 cash bail and was released.
Ross read a statement in court saying that Smith betrayed her trust.
“This was a case of trust. I am no computer person and I believed that Debbie had my best interest at heart, and it never occurred to me that she would steal from me,” Ross said.
She read a list of items Smith charged to the credit card, including hunting trips, tires, horse feed, taxes and furniture, and said Smith even hauled her home garbage to work to dispose of it.
“These are a few things I paid for on my business card, an example of misuse and extortion on the part of Debbie Smith,” Ross concluded.
Deputy District Attorney Lane Mills said it was “mind boggling” that Smith would embezzle from someone who treated her like a member of the family. He also questioned Smith’s claim that a shopping addiction led to the embezzlement.
“The things she spent the money on just generally weren’t consistent with a mere shopping addiction. The amount of money was not consistent with a shopping addiction,” he said following the sentencing.
Smith’s attorney, Lyman McConnell, said Smith acted responsibly after being caught and cooperated completely. He said she did not want to drag Ross through a trial; she just wanted to pay for her consequences.
“A responsible person admits their wrongdoing and tries to correct it,” McConnell said. “She acted in a responsible way.” He said Smith sought psychological treatment within one or two weeks of being confronted and has taken steps to prevent a similar incident from happening again.
“She’s not a bad person,” McConnell said. “She made a bad decision; she had bad judgment.”
McConnell argued that Smith was a “prime candidate” for probation and scored well on the probation evaluation. He said she is embarrassed, humiliated, is now a convicted felon and has lost half her customers.
“She will always have to worry about what others think of her,” McConnell said. He lobbied the judge for probation, or the possibility of serving time in the county jail on the weekends or shorter, 30-day terms.
Smith, who sat calmly at the defendant’s table during the proceeding, read a statement and offered apologies to Ross, her family and her friends. She said she was on anti-depressants when she started embezzling because of the pressures of caring for her family and her business, and that she rewarded herself by shopping.
“Shopping is a great anti-depressant,” she said. “It’s a vicious circle and a vicious disease. I wanted more and more and thought it would make me happy. It was a cycle I couldn’t stop.”
Smith said she got so far into debt and was glad when Ross found out so she could address her shopping addiction.
“I apologize to my family and friends. To Joanna, I am so sorry and extremely remorseful. I will never do this again,” Smith concluded, choking back tears.
Judge Breen said the sentencing was difficult because Smith, a lifelong Fallon resident, served her community on the school board, had no criminal history and wasn’t likely to re-offend. However, he was struck by the lengthy timeframe of the embezzlement.
“This crime has gone on for seven years,” Breen said. “That’s a long time to betray another person.
“Because the betrayal was so long-standing and it was such a substantial amount, and primarily because the crime was a betrayal of an elderly person, I cannot grant you probation,” Breen said.
Smith’s husband, Bob, was visibly upset after the verdict while Smith consoled him. With tears in her eyes, Smith calmly took care of business, handing her personal effects to her family and asking deputies about getting her medications while incarcerated.
She was escorted from the courtroom by sheriff’s deputies.
Outside the courthouse, Ross said she felt the sentence was fair and was relieved it was over.
“If I never see her again, that’ll be just fine,” Ross said.
Bob Smith, still reeling from the sentencing, said he disagreed completely with the prison term.
“It’s as wrong as can be,” he said. “She’s not the type of person that should be in prison. It was a simple mistake. She’s been a pillar of this community.”