BANGOR, Maine — Cindy Dunton entered no plea Thursday during her first court appearance since being accused last year of stealing nearly $200,000 from the town of Newburgh.
Dunton’s arraignment before Superior Court Justice S. Kirk Studstrup lasted only a few minutes, but was attended by at least 17 Newburgh residents who have vowed to attend her every court appearance. Dunton, who arrived in the courtroom alone, said very little as Studstrup advised her of her rights. Dunton’s attorney, Dale Thistle, did most of the talking.
“My client’s intent is to offer no plea this morning,” said Thistle. Studstrup, as a procedural matter, recorded a “not guilty” plea on Dunton’s behalf.
Dunton, who is Newburgh’s former deputy clerk and treasurer, is charged with Class B theft by unauthorized taking for allegedly embezzling $199,536.54 between Jan. 1, 2006, and the end of 2009. That sum was compiled by a forensic audit commissioned by Newburgh selectmen last summer. In June 2010, three months after she was fired by selectmen, Dunton signed a promissory note admitting to the thefts and pledging to pay the $200,000 back plus more than $50,000 in audit and legal fees incurred by the town.
Thistle said after the hearing that entering no plea Thursday was his idea.
“It’s a strategy on my part, not her part,” he said. “I want as much time as possible to prepare my sentencing argument. The obvious question in this case is what is ultimately going to happen to my client.”
Dunton is likely to eventually plead guilty to the charge against her, according to Thistle.
Thistle and Penobscot County District Attorney R. Christopher Almy declined to discuss what sentence they would argue for.
“She’s looking at up to 10 years in jail and probation of up to four years,” said Almy. “I have no recommendation on that at this time.”
Almy said one factor that could affect his recommendation is any new information that arises on the scope of Dunton’s thefts. The forensic audit by the town was limited to a three-year span by selectmen to limit the cost to the town. A group of Newburgh residents who have been combing through town financial records for more than a year say they have uncovered thousands of dollars in additional thefts by Dunton. One of the residents, Claude Bolduc, stood outside the Penobscot Judicial Center after Thursday’s hearing showing reporters copies of checks and financial statements that he said could indicate additional thefts by Dunton. Bolduc said he has provided the documents to numerous entities, including Newburgh selectmen, the Maine State Police, the district attorney and the state auditor.
“Eventually, this information will surface,” he said.
Dunton worked for the town of Newburgh for a total of 12 years beginning in 1998.
Almy, asked whether his case is based on the forensic audit alone or if he is investigating the totality of Dunton’s alleged thefts, indicated his office is conducting a wider investigation but treading carefully when it comes to allegations by townspeople.
“I’m not going to shut the door on anything, but we need proof, not just insinuations,” he said. “Whether she stole any more stands as a question that has to be resolved.”
Thistle said Dunton would continue to cooperate with investigators and has every intention of repaying the town, though he couldn’t say how she would do it. In the promissory note, Dunton and her husband, Alan Dunton, stated they would sell their assets, including real estate, in order to repay the town. To date, Dunton has made no payments and Thistle said he did not know whether her properties are on the market.
“We are not trying to avoid the Duntons’ responsibility,” said Thistle. “If we were, I’d have taken a much different legal tack from the beginning.”
Asked for a response to some Newburgh residents who question whether Dunton will ever have the ability to repay, Thistle said she is optimistic.
“Nobody knows what the future holds,” he said. “It is speculation to say she is not going to be able to pay it back.”
Rosanna Libby, one of the Newburgh residents who attended Thursday’s hearing and overheard Thistle’s interview with reporters, called that statement “baloney.”
“The town has received nothing from the Duntons so far,” said Libby, a former Newburgh selectwoman who has held several elected and appointed positions in town. “They could have sent $50 or $100 to us to at least show their intentions, but they haven’t. Where is the money they’re going to pay us back with? I don’t think it’s there.”
Chris Yountz, another Newburgh resident who has led the investigation into Dunton’s thefts, also has helped gather almost 400 signatures from residents pushing for a stiff sentence for Dunton. He also has encouraged residents to attend Dunton’s court hearings en masse.
“We wanted to be here just in case she did enter a guilty plea today,” said Yountz, who said he and others intend to offer testimony before Dunton’s sentencing. “We don’t want her to get off easy.”
Dunton is scheduled for a disposition hearing March 14 and trial on April 4.